Okay. Shall I start off with this? Nicolas Cage is a favorite. Maybe the favorite. Unfortunately, however, Cage isn’t a very, how do I put this, popular choice? He doesn’t exactly have the ‘je ne sais quoi ‘ quality to a lot of folks, and yet people forget he’s an Oscar winning actor. This week’s analysis is a look at the career of Nicolas Cage and an ode to some of his forgotten great performances, alongside a look at what truly makes him unique on the Hollywood stage.
It’s best to say that Cage has still done some stinkers in his time. From The Wicker Man to Ghost Rider, he’s regularly put into roles that were poisoned to begin with. This article won’t spend time discussing his tax problems or defending his artistic choices but it will be about his acclaimed roles. This is an ode to the performances of Nicolas Cage that deserve the utmost respect and credit.
Any ode to Nicolas Cage’s career would not be able to begin without talking about Leaving Las Vegas. The film isn’t exactly on my top list, I think it stumbles in its script and general pacing, but Cage’s performance anchors the film into greatness. His portrayal of a Hollywood writer who slowly descends into alcoholic decay is a display of absolute tragic humanity. Cage brings a deft touch to the role, adding a slight sense of humor and real heart to every scene. Las Vegas is probably his most ‘accomplished’ role and to anyone who critiques Cage for being one-dimensional, Leaving Las Vegas would be my first rebuttal.
In the same year (1995), however, Cage would go on to make the frankly daft The Rock in which he would shout at Sean Connery for a bit while trying to avoid becoming a staple of Michael Bay’s portfolio. The Rock is, quite frankly, a good bit of zany mad fun. Cage really just overdoes it, delightfully so, and the same sort of exaggerated Cage-isms also cropped up in Vampire’s Kiss, The Wicker Man and Drive Angry among others. There’s a sense that Mr. Nic knows he is breaking all sense of the ‘normal’ in many of his roles. Leaving Las Vegas is fairly reserved compared to most of his filmography.
Nic would go on to also star in the equally zany action flicks Face/Off and Con Air. His ‘attempt’ at a Southern accent, and his haircut, in Con Air make it an absolute stand-out. John Malkovich also, bizarrely, plays one of the most simultaneously worst and best villains in opposite to Cage’s protagonist. Con Air is a really odd affair, but Face/Off has that same sort of quality. By its very concept it’s exaggerated, but it makes it much more well suited to Cage’s action-film repotoire. The real reason why I didn’t take so kindly to Next or Stolen or Trespass or [Insert Modern Nicolas Cage Headlining Action ‘Thriller’] is that they keep Cage on the backburner. They don’t allow him any freedom outside of the concrete script, structure and general safe sale of the film.
Cage’s step into the new millenia would be marred by some disappointments and first signs of his typecasting entraptment. Gone In Sixty Seconds and The Family Man might be his worst films. Much has to be said for the outlandish Kaufman-penned Adaptation. Adaptation itself is an absolute symphony to the inner-workings of the entire creative process, and Cage gives a strange weight and feel to the characters he plays. It’s weird to think this is the same bloke who punches people in the face every year or so in your by-the-numbers action film. The self-satire of Adaptation is given real humility by Cage, perhaps not seen since Las Vegas. Matchstick Men would follow, a film I’ve actually forgotten about but recall it being pretty good, and then National Treasure…
It’s easy to dismiss National Treasure for being too knee-deep in Indiana Jones, and really it pretty much is a rip-off. Its goofy charm combined with Cage’s own bemusement do however make it a pretty alright franchise. The more ‘important’ films of Cage’s career would follow on from National Treasure in succession: Lord of War and The Weather Man.
Lord of War might be the greatest ‘war’ movie of all time. Not a film involving garrisons and soldiers, but a film about the very idea of war. Cage portrays an arms dealer who slowly finds his dreams, humanity and sanity all slowly melt away under the weight of his poisonous profession. The monologues and moments of truth that he speaks with genuine elegance make this film that much more philosophical. The film prides itself in heaving deep psychological insight to its core character, showing his globe-trotting riches are covered in blood and bullets. Lord of War is a grandiose statement on the modern world and its arms-based hypocrisy.
People often compare Cage to Nintendo; they’re either doing ridiculously well or incredibly poor. It’s a safe and mostly right comparison to make, but it adds a sense of unpredictability to Cage. A film like Bad Lieutenant looks on paper like another over-the-top stupid buzzword-marketed cop thriller with Cage at the film, yet if you actually watch it you’re surprised to see one of Cage’s greater performances. His greatest performance, however, and one of the finest feats in filmmaking history, completely serious, comes in the form of The Weather Man.
The Weather Man is an odd beast. It’s probably one of the most underrated modern classics and one of the most ‘truthful’ films out there. It’s about one lone weather man as he deals with inadequacy, death and the pathetic reality that he embarrassingly inhabits. ‘Realistic’ might be the word, but that would do the film a grave injustice. It’s often witty, amusing in dark ways and really twists the knife inside Cage’s acting repertoire to see what exactly he can deliver. It’s about a guy trying to hold his life together, it’s just brilliantly honest. It was Gore Verbinski’s luvvie project before going full-metal-Pirates-Of-The-Carribean and it shows. The amount of expression, emotion and genuine qualities he’s able to squash out of the cast, particularly Cage, make the film a truthful masterpiece that contemplates ambition and dreams in the context of modern existence. I will write on The Weather Man in depth another time but, to summarize, to me it showcases Nicolas Cage at his absolute pinnacle of play.
It’s difficult to put into words the amount of frustration I feel with what Cage followed The Weather Man up with. The Wicker Man was going to be another zany funfest before the producers forced everyone’s hands to try to build a horror picture, Ghost Rider was sort of born out of Cage’s long love for comic book mythology, his son his called Kal-El, but the slew of action fodder just has no defense. World Trade Center, Kick Ass and Bad Lieutenant are the only ‘highlights’ that I can think of post-2005 Nicolas Cage. I have a soft spot for the ridunkulous Drive Angry, but that’s more of a genre thing.
It is a shame to often see Cage reduced to a headlining action fodder star given his true brilliance, when seen, really hits home. Old Nic is perhaps the favourite, in my books at least, for his paramount flexibility. Not many people can play an arms dealer, a mid-life crisis engulfed weather man, a superhero and Indiana Jones, but old Cage can. If you ever doubt his abilities then do check out some of the highlights that I’ve mentioned throughout this analysis. Cage truly is one of the modern great actors, it just takes a bit of legwork to explain exactly why.