Starring: Nicholas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy
Directed by: Dominic Sena (“Gone in Sixty Seconds”)
Written by: Bragi F. Schut (debut)

In all fairness, when Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman called out Nicolas Cage back in early 2009 and pleaded with him in his article “Nicolas Cage: Artist or hack? The choice is his” to stop pursuing “cheesy paycheck films,” a much-needed substantial Cage performance as a coked-up cop in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” was still six months from a festival premiere.

While Cage hallucinating iguanas in the Big Easy wasn’t as highly regarded as his Oscar-worthy role in 1995’s “Leaving Las Vegas,” it was proof the man could still act. Somewhere beyond career choices like “Bangkok Dangerous” and “Next,” Cage still had a steady pulse. Now, with the medieval fantasy “Season of the Witch,” the first official movie of 2011, he’s flatlined again.

In “Witch,” Cage plays Behmen, a 14th-century knight fighting during the Crusades who is forced to escort a woman the Catholic Church believes to be a plague-causing witch to an abbey where she can be destroyed with a powerful book of scriptures. Coming along for the journey is Behmen’s fellow swordsman Felson (Perlman), along with a panicky priest, a brave altar boy, and a frumpy guide. We’re not asking for “The Canterbury Tales” here, but the collection of flimsy characters in “Witch” would have sent Chaucer straight to the gallows.

Sidestepping any real Holy War history, director Dominic Sena (“Gone in Sixty Seconds”) and first-time screenwriter Bragi F. Schut take a broader approach to the religious themes of the period in favor of more uninspired supernatural mumbo jumbo. Even the Man vs. God tirades it produces are as appealing as a plateful of greasy fried sheep’s feet.

The anticlimactic scenes all lead up to an inevitable CGI-heavy showdown: Good vs. Evil, featuring a clan of grotesque zombie monks and a winged demon as realistic as the one Eddie Murphy jacks up in “The Golden Child.”

It used to be that discerning audiences were the only ones disinterested in a Cage blockbuster. Now, it seems, he is too, and he is easy to criticize when he phones it in like this. From his monotonous line-delivery to his frazzled eyes, his overall aloof attitude has grown tiresome.

Artist or hack? Cage has definitely made his choice — at least for this round.

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