This is not a review. I am not about to recommend you see or avoid a Neil Breen film. If you are familiar with his back catalogue, you’ll know whether the deranged and occasionally disturbing world of Cade: The Tortured Crossing is for you. But as the phenomenon that is the Breen Cinematic Universe continues to fill theatres around the world, maybe we should be wondering just what it is that makes his brand of demented pseudo-blockbuster so irresistible.
For the uninitiated, Neil Breen is a monotone architect-turned-auteur from Nevada. Since 2005’s Double Down – in which he plays an unstoppable hacker, planning on destroying Las Vegas with anthrax and satellites for some reason – he has steadily built a loyal base of fans, to become one of the world’s leading producers of B movies.
As Breen has progressed on this path, debates have begun to rage about the sincerity of his work. Initially, it seemed clear that they were misguided passion projects, political conspiracy thrillers in which a lone journalist / international spy / intergalactic Christ figure (coincidentally played by Breen himself) put the world to rights – millions of deaths at a time. But as time has gone by, the word has spread to make Breen the talk of every so-bad-its-good film club in existence, and now his latest independently produced and distributed film is packing out theatres around the world.
At this stage, considering the notoriety Breen’s films have attained, there is little chance he isn’t aware of how his films are actually perceived. But I think sometimes it’s possible for two things to be true at once. Unlike hacks such as Tommy Wiseau, Breen does not seem to have leant into the criticism of his movies and shamelessly tried to rebrand them as ‘comedy’. Breen still takes his movies seriously to a fault, and that’s admirable, all things considered. At the same time, with a major role with a studio film as remote a prospect as it ever was, Breen is a shrewd enough operator to know that his previous warts-and-all methods of production have put bums on seats – so there is no incentive for him to ‘improve’. As long as it pays, he might as well give the people what they want, and play the hits.
Play the hits he certainly does, in Cade: The Tortured Crossing – Breen’s first sequel. As seriously as he plays the film, there is an irrepressible comic timing to each of Breen’s productions. It’s as though Frank Drebbin or Inspector Clouseau have come to life to direct a sci-fi thriller.
Time and again, cinematic cues we recognise from mainstream productions prime us to expect one thing, only to deliver another. In Pass Thru, for example, there is an infamous scene in which a drone shot gradually moves away from a rotating Breen, to show a vast stretch of desert. Usually that is where a scene-transition would occur – but in this case, the music crescendos again, and the camera slowly returns to Breen, who is still rotating.
In this particular film, the opening titles are subject to a Pythonesque series of farces. The first sees the Earth spinning in space, like you might be expecting to see at the start of a Universal picture – only with “A Neil Breen Production” appearing on top of it. 30 seconds and various stock images go by, before the second credit emerges, telling us exactly the same thing, but in slightly different words.
Later, Breen’s editing also supplies a stunning gag. Addressing stock footage of an adoring audience, he is applauded for investing in a local mental health facility. He is cheered for promising to make it better than ever. But when his speech delivers on the rule of threes, saying he just wants “the kids to live happy lives”, he is met by stony expressions and silence.
And of course, the sixth feature in the Breen Cinematic Universe sees him reprise the role of Cade, the glassy-eyed protagonist of his last outing, Twisted Pair. If you haven’t seen that film (though the fact you are reading an article about Neil Breen at all suggests that you have), Cade and his twin Cale were abducted by aliens in his childhood, and given a bunch of AI implants, making them what Breen’s script refers to as super-powered “humanoids”.
Throughout the film, Breen (as both twins) also makes a number of enjoyable references to his previous hit (“WHO am I? WHAT am I?” returns, to rapturous applause wherever the film plays). But the script is supplemented by several new hit brain-farts, too; from the mystifyingly mystical “I am the dream of these things“, to the surprisingly candid “It’s all gone wrong. I’m disintegrating!“
Beyond this, I don’t want to go too deep into the plot, because if you want to see this for yourself, you will probably want to riff on it with fresh eyes. But over the course of both these films, there have also been some new developments, which I feel reflect the present state of Hollywood.
One of the most interesting things about the character of Cade is how he embodies the banal hyperbole surrounding AI from the past five years. Excitement around so-called artificial intelligence has reached fever pitch, with breathless so-called think-pieces telling us daily that the likes of ChatGPT are set to take all of our jobs / create millions of jobs / solve the climate crisis / bring about the end of the world – but at the end of the day, nobody really has any proven uses for it, beyond churning out bastardised parodies of pre-existing culture.
Breen repeatedly tries to let us know that Cade is bordering on omnipotence. It is a staple trait of any character he plays in his films. But while in some sense we saw a creative execution of that concept in his previous films – from the technical savvy of his super-spy in Double Down, to his messianic entity’s ability to literally make people vanish with a wave of his hand in Pass Thru – Cade can only ever deliver a deep fried echo of that ‘power’. The self-identified “super-powers” he uses to defeat a clan of ninjas (there is no context for the arrival of these ninjas, or their desire to hurt Cade) consist of standing still and flailing. Projected behind him are three to four other versions of himself, flailing in the same manner. If this is actually the full potential of AI, then I am not sure why Hollywood’s bosses are so keen to use it in place of human writers.
Another way in which Breen’s imbibing of mainstream culture and Hollywood ends up serving something approaching satire is his determination to replicate Marvel’s formula for success. It is increasingly rare that you will find an organic shot in a Marvel film, with the cinematic universe instead favouring the grim efficiency of a green-screen for every set and vista you can imagine. This was particularly comical when the lifeless grey film lid that still gives away even the most advanced CGI had evidently grown over the majestic panoramas of Wakanda – a film which paid lip-service to celebrating ‘Africa’ at every turn, but had virtually nothing of the continent in it.
Breen’s previous films were conspicuously all filmed in the desert – chiefly because it is cheap and doesn’t require permits. But it also meant that at least some of the time, the cinematography of John Mastrogiacomo would pick out a half-decent image of the endless sky, sand and scrub. Perhaps hoping to emulate the ‘glory’ of the MCU, though, Breen has confined his production to a studio – rendering the intended splendour of every far-flung and spectacular backdrop he finds himself in inherently underwhelming.
One moment, Cade is rolling out of the way of a tram at Amsterdam Centraal (to the glee of the audience in Kriterion, during the sold-out screening I attended); the next he is resting in the Alpine beauty of Neuschwanstein Castle; he is advocating for legal changes in a US courtroom; or shuffling into a cave which apparently has a gateway to Hell in it. But mostly, he is standing in a greenscreen room somewhere in Nevada.
Overall, this makes Cade: The Tortured Crossing Breen’s most challenging film to watch. But it also makes it feel like a an almost subversive wink to the degraded state of the modern blockbuster. Initially, to try and imitate the products of Hollywood, Breen had to go on location, find some mountains, and run screaming through the blazing desert for uncomfortably long takes. Now, he can kick back and relax in an airconditioned building, and generate something which is only marginally worst to look at that the average Avengers movie. His plug-in ‘explosion’ effects are no less real than 90% of those you would find in the Spider-Verse. The clunkily animated tiger which he wrestles looks a little anaemic, but it won’t give me nightmares like Cats! did – and cost significantly less.
With all this in mind, the most futile and least interesting thing to do here would be to try to tell Neil Breen what he could do better. Exiting the cinema, I overheard several people laughing at how bad they felt the movie was, and how they might send Breen notes. But his films already got them – and me – to stump up €12 to watch his latest work in a packed out theatre. Anyone trying to prove they are smarter than the man they gave their money to is missing the point. Whether he did it intentionally or not, he has already won. It would be more interesting, instead, to look through these movies to find what it is that is so intoxicating about their incompetence.
It seems to me that like the very best satire, Breen’s work is (deliberately or otherwise) finding the absurd points within studio cinema, and drawing them out to their illogical conclusions. At the same time, over the years, Breen’s brand of cinema has changed with the times, adopting new techniques that have proliferated blockbusters – further lampooning the evolving system he is trying to emulate. Even in his first sequel, the cinematic magpie that is Breen has found room to add to that collection of shiny nonsense, in the construction of a nest which is nothing if it isn’t unique. Terrifying (this is a film where the ‘hero’ effectively creates the X-Men by giving them non-consensual medical procedures), but unique. And in the end, in a niche where it is far, far easier to belch out ‘hilarious’ shark attack movies, or The Exorcist rip-offs to make a cheap buck, that adaptability alone is worthy of genuine praise.
Keep doing what you’re doing, Neil. You don’t need advice from me, or anyone else for that matter.