When it comes to hardcore cinephiles there is perhaps no more polarizing actor than Nicholas Cage. He transcends the “love him or hate him” category and falls into a weird netherworld where he can be adored one year and scorned the next depending on his mood and whether or not he’s decided to make good films for a while. I can think of no actor with such a wide discrepancy between his career highs and lows and most of it is because Cage has not been very discerning in what films he will make. As I said previously, there seems to be no movie Nicholas Cage won’t agree to star in. I am convinced that if I slid a screenplay concept, scribbled on a cocktail napkin and soaked with bourbon, across the bar to him that he would immediately sign on to make it.
Were he a little more discerning in his choices he may not have so permanently injured the brand that is Nicholas Cage. Notice how Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t just make any piece of crap that comes his way so he can add another tapestry to his castle? Be more like that Mr. Cage, and you wouldn’t be so polarizing a figure.
But what is even more strange, or perhaps tragic, is that there is an immense amount of talent within him that often gets simply squandered. It is quite clear to the audience when he decides he is in a film worth his effort and when Cage turns it on he can be one of the best of his generation. At other times, when he knows full well he’s making a throw-away film, he sleep walks right through it looking for all the world like a guy who’s running to the liquor store between takes to cash his check.
It’s because of these peaks and valleys that I find him such an enigma. Because those moments where he gives it his all can be so spectacular I have watched a ridiculous number of awful movies trying to unearth some acting gold. Often leaving the movie disappointed its still worth it when I stumble onto one of those performances that made him a powerhouse. For these reasons his fall from grace in Hollywood wasn’t very dramatic—Rather his career suffered the proverbial death of a thousand papercuts with one poor decision after another all adding up to a filmography in which his best work is lost amid a sea of dreck.
So here now I present Cage at his best and contrast it with a list of his absolute worst and I will leave it to you to decide where he belongs in the annals of Hollywood history.
At his best:
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Starring opposite Eve Mendes as Terence McDonagh Cage shines in this thriller set in a bleak and depressing post-Katrina New Orleans. He adds a layer of dimension to the otherwise way overused anti-hero archetype and gives this thriller the extra kick it needs to go from decent to exceptional. With nothing special to work with from director Warner Herzog Cage steals every scene and plays McDonagh with a self-awareness you don’t get too often from the anti-hero; recognizing and displaying with his expressions and tone that he knows damn well he isn’t a nice guy but does sometimes wish he could change his spots. It’s a nuanced performance from Cage and a good example of how at his best he can lift an entire movie to another level.
In a perfect match of the hit-or-miss director Gore Verbinski and the hit-or-miss actor in Cage they both turned it on here. Starring opposite Michael Caine in a movie about a Chicago Weatherman who desperately wants career and family to be in harmony but manages to bungle them both Cage is perfectly subtle in his performance and believable in his “life just isn’t fair” down-in-the-dumps portrayal of David Spritz. Caine brings it here as well and when they are onscreen together sparks fly.
Not everyone loves this movie as I do and I suspect a large part of the reason for that is that it isn’t exactly a happy tale. There is a fog of depressed loneliness and surrender that hangs over the movie and some people aren’t into anything that doesn’t have a happy and uplifting message. But to me, when Caine and Cage get together and decide to give it their all, there’s not too many combinations better than that.
This might very well be my favorite Cage movie. Directed by Joel Schumaker and and co-starring Joaquin Phoenix the movie is blessed with marvelous performances from even the most minor of parts. Amy Morton, for example, is stunningly heartbreaking and memorable with only about 10 minutes of total screen time. As Tom Welles cage really should be credited for two roles in this film because as the events playout he changes the character ever so gradually until, by the end, he is a completely different person forever scarred by what he has seen and been through. Resembling very little of the man he was when the film started you will be completely invested not so much in the physical safety of Welles but rather in his mental state. It’s a ride unlike any other in recent memory and several times during the film I thought “He can’t ever be the same after seeing that” and he wasn’t. Sometimes unfairly labeled as a throwaway thriller or, by people who have never seen it, as torture porn, the movie is neither. It is for sure an exploration of the darker side of the human condition but its also a cautionary tale of good versus evil and the consequences that fight can have on even the noblest among us. I can think of no better example of the range Cage can display than this and if you haven’t seen it I beg of you, watch it today.
Joel and Ethan Coen and Cage at his absolute zaniest best is all you really have to know. Here we get his comedic side and nobody can play “almost but not quite” crazy like Nicholas Cage. It might not be a classic but this 1987 comedy is a perfect example of Cage giving a shit about the movie he’s in and it has long had a well deserved cult following. The summary doesn’t bode well: when an ex-con and an ex-cop decide to grab one baby from a set of quintuplets and raise it hilarity ensues, but it is a funny and engrossing movie despite the simplistic premise. By now you should know that the Coen brothers films are nearly always more than the sum of their parts and there is much more going on here than can be summarized in a teaser.
Leaving Las Vegas
You can’t leave out the movie he won best actor for right? Turning his patented crazy meter up to a 1,000 Cage perfectly portrays an alcoholic screenwriter who’s life of debauchery has cost him everything. Recognizing rock-bottom when he sees it Ben Sanderson heads to Vegas where he makes the unorthodox decision to drink himself to death. Enter Elizabeth Shue as the “hooker with a heart of gold” persona who agrees not to interfere with his self-imposed death sentence and what you get is Cage displaying why he can be so remarkable under the right conditions. It’s all here, a level of crazy so perfect you wonder how much of it is real and a dark underlying self-loathing that seems impossible to fake. Coupled with Shue at her best this might be the quintessential Cage film. If there was an actors Hall of Fame, as there is in football, this might be the movie you showed the selection committee when trying to make the case he deserves enshrinement.
Honorable Mentions: Peggy Sue Got Married, Face Off, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Drive Angry, Lord of War
At His Worst
Pay The Ghost
The most recent movie I spotted starring Cage, currently on Netflix, is a hopeless mishmash of horror tropes and stupid jump scares and Cage knows it. Opposite Sarah Callies of Walking Dead and Prison Break fame the movie is awful from start to finish and might be the worst performance of Cages career. Were you to be on the opposite side, opposed to Cages entry in the aforementioned and totally fictional Acting Hall of Fame, this would be the one to show the selection committee and prevent his enshrinement. It could not be more apparent that he made this movie for a few bucks and just sleepwalks right through it. You’d be better off slamming your head in a car door than sitting through this.
The Wicker Man
In a rare case of awful movie meets awful writing meets overacting this is one Cage should purge from his archives. Remember when Kim Bassinger sued to get out of having to make a movie called Boxing Helena because, before the ink dried on the contract, she knew it was a turd? Cage should have done that. Midway through the movie you can almost see him saying “this was a huge mistake” to himself. More than anything Cage fails here not for lack of effort but just because he seems confused as to how to play it. His character seems no more sure of who and what he is than the audience is and lack of character development and razor thin plot cause him to stumble and flail through a movie that never should have been made.
Season of the Witch
I don’t even know where to begin with this one. And Ron Perlman, what were you thinking? Knights bring a witch to a monastery because some monks think she is to blame for the spread of black death, or something. Awful set pieces, terrible dialogue and Cage not giving a crap. Doesn’t get too much worse than this mess.
Predictable cookie cutter crime drama about a rigged boxing match in Atlantic City. Cage is the hard boiled, no wait, gritty…maybe it’s burnt out? Shady? Anyway, you know they type as you’ve seen it a million times. There’s little intrigue, little character development and I had even less interest. Its all terrible and Cage knows it. One of his worst performances easy and another movie he did for a quick check, I think, because there is no other reason he could have had for agreeing to this.
Honorable Mentions: Kiss of Death, Guarding Tess, Next (so, so bad) and Trapped in Paradise, Left Behind