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The Films Of Nicolas Cage: A Retrospective

by The Playlist Staff
April 10, 2014 2:00 PM
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4.10.14 update: You can analyze Nicolas Cage’s eccentrically eclectic career all you want. We certainly have scratched our heads over it too. Once an indie darling, Cage’s career transformed and morphed over the years into a kind of studio grotesque, but as he explained in the interview quotes linked below, to the actor it was all part of a restless, try-anything, break-all-rules plan. With David Gordon Green’s “Joe” arriving in theaters this weekend—featuring one of Cage’s best and most restrained performances in years, a real return to his roots and real acting—we thought, we’d revive this still-very relevant feature retrospective from last year. “Joe” is a small film (review here, recent interview with Cage here) and could certainly use the extra love.

Yes, the career of Nicolas Cage has taken what one can argue is a serious nosedive in recent years. His frightening hairline has become the butt of endless jokes, his personal life is always a mess (he named his son Kal-El after Superman and he's on his third wife), and his take-a-paycheck career choices of late (seemingly endless riffs on "Taken" that barely get theatrical releases, things like "Seeking Justice," "Stolen," "Trespass," and on the way, a reboot of the bonkers Biblical apocalypse flick "Left Behind") have made him an even bigger laughing stock (maybe the tax problems and reported ridiculous spending habits explain these terrible tendencies).

But if you stop to take notice and perhaps cool on the cheap shot jokes for a second, one can realize that the good far outweighs the awful in his oeuvre and we always hold out hope that Cage will course-correct and end up back in quality fare. But in fact, it seems like Cage likes to switch it up as much as possible if only for his own creative sake. "If you look at the work carefully, there’s a ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and then there’s a "Knowing.' " And there’s a “Lord of War” and a “National Treasure”…I’m always trying to make things eclectic," he stressed in a recent Playlist interview that took place in Berlin. And there's some promising stuff on the way, not least of which is David Gordon Green's "Joe." And it's a signal of more good things to come. "Now I want to really go back to my roots and reinvent myself again, and go back to 'Leaving Las Vegas' or 'Vampire’s Kiss,' " he told us. "Do these smaller, independently spirited dramatic movies. That’s the direction I want to really zero in on right now."

With this weekend seeing the release of Cage-voiced animation "The Croods," which looks like the biggest hit the actor's had in a while, and while it's no great shakes is better than anything he's made in a few years, we thought we'd take this opportunity to run down Cage's idiosyncratic career and sometimes wonderfully unhinged performances. Fingers crossed we get more to add to the Cage canon before too long. 

David Lynch's "Wild at Heart," which was booed when it premiered at the Cannes film Festival.

"Wild At Heart" (1990)
“This snakeskin jacket is a symbol my individuality and belief in personal freedom," is the oft-repeated maxim declared by Cage's character Sailor Ripley in “Wild At Heart,” David Lynch's swooning, sexy, creepy road trip to Oz, and applies to the kooky Cage as well (the jacket used in the film was his own). Could this be Cage at his peak? His embodiment of Sailor is sensual, menacing and just plain cool -- but his smoking chemistry with Laura Dern is some of the hottest ever onscreen. The Elvis nut swaggers and drawls like the King himself, crooning his ballad “Love Me,” but brings a looseness and relaxed humor to the performance, a greater feat than the high-tension campy scenery chewing evinced by the rest of the cast. He turns in a highly stylized physical performance (a rare commodity in this day and age) and manages to ground the universe of wacky characters swirling around him, with a skilled nuance and real genuine emotion. In the special features, Dern describes her mother Diane Ladd as the perfect Lynchian actor (and she is truly amazing and transcendent in this), but it could be argued that Cage, with his laissez-faire theatricality, willingness to fully engage in Lynch’s absurd hyperreality, and commitment to the truth of character and story is, in fact, the real perfect Lynchian actor. Can we cross our fingers for a reunion? [A]

"Vampire's Kiss" (1988)
While not as lauded as say "Raising Arizona," god, Nicolas Cage was never better than he was in the late 1980s. Directed by Robert Bierman, most people have long forgotten this B-movie vampire comedy, but there's one key thing to remember: it's written by Joseph Minion, the man who wrote Martin Scorsese's dark, strange and surreal 24-hour classic, "After Hours," and tonally the picture is just as weird. The film centers on a douchebag yuppie publishing executive (Cage) who, 
when he has a random sexual encounter with a woman with a fondness for neck biting (Jennifer Beals), thinks he's turning into a vampire. Of course it's all in his head (or is it?) and he goes to bizarre lengths to prove to himself that he's become a bloodsucker, including losing his shit and torturing his poor assistant (Maria Conchita Alonso) with impossibly menial tasks. The role, notoriously known for Cage eating live cockroaches, is essentially a descent into madness and it's Cage at his unhinged, manic best, but it's well calibrated, knowing exactly when to pop like a madman and when to simmer like a deliciously semi-sane fruitcake teetering on the edge (oh, and the Looney Toons facial expressions throughout are a

laugh riot). [B+].

"Leaving Las Vegas" (1995)
In this loose, jazzy and affecting performance that won Nicolas Cage the Academy Award (and seemingly gave him the financial leeway to do tepid action movies for the next decade plus), he plays a surrendered man who has decided to completely bail out on life (and strangely happy with his decision); an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter who goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, only to fall in love with a prostitute (played by a superb Elisabeth Shue). Just, you know, not enough to not drink himself to death. In the skilled hands of director Mike Figgis, he turns a prolonged, potentially hard-to-watch tragedy into something artful and heartrending. And thanks to Cage's wet performance, which wonderfully sidesteps any potential parody (since "the drunk" is a cliche as old as Hollywood itself), you feel for this character, no matter how reprehensible or irresponsible his behavior might be. What happens in 'Vegas' breaks your fucking heart and it certainly convinced the Academy. [A-]
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  • Curtishanson | April 16, 2014 10:54 AMReply

    Red Rock West

  • Daniel | April 15, 2014 5:49 AMReply

    Nice list! Bravo!

  • Duddi | April 10, 2014 5:47 PMReply

    IMO, the idea of this article is interesting...but the execution is not... The ratings are just ridiculous... it's like a 10-year old put those grades in there... or maybe The Playlist were doing their thing - trying to be provocative. I mean, come on, "Adaptation" (B+); "Bad Lieutenant:Port of Call - New Orleans" (B-)... who you're kidding ? If someone were to tell me that "Snake Eyes" (B+), "Vampire's Kiss" (B+) or Kick Ass (A-) were better than those other two I would've consider him/her immature... The least you can do is to re-watch these movies.
    - Cage's favorite performances of mine are: Leaving Las Vegas; Adaptation and Bad Lieutenant: PoC: N.O;. I also like his work in Birdy; Raising Arizona; Wild at Heart; Red Rock West; Face/Off; Weather Man and Moonstruck... The dude is good at everything: drama, comedy, wearing bear suits, going over-the-top on his brother's film "Deadfall" or his directing debut "Sonny"... I'd like to see him doing a western in the future, cuz he's never done one...
    PS: for anyone who's seen John Dahl's "Red Rock West" I'd recommend "Kill Me Again" with Val Kilmer...
    Anyway, Cheers !!!

  • thislalife | April 10, 2014 3:05 PMReply

    The Cage Trinity of Rock-Con Air-Face/Off is all things that are holy.

    Also the whole Reddit cult of the OneTrueGod does not give him enough credit for his fearless acting in many of his earlier works. Depressing. Got-dayuuum nerds!

  • @cinejordan | March 26, 2013 1:31 PMReply

    No one ever mentions 'Trapped in Paradise.' It gets schmaltzy like most holiday comedies do, but Cage is hilarious in it and he works great with Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz. It's a real hoot.

  • rich voss | March 26, 2013 12:57 AMReply

    weather man.

  • @cinejordan | March 26, 2013 1:41 PM

    Great name, Rich.

  • nechoplex | March 25, 2013 7:39 AMReply

    I would add his performance in The Weather Man. While the film is far from perfect, Cage performance is very subdued, empathetic and hilarious. It feels very personal too and his scenes with Michael Caine are really amazing.

  • Mohi | March 28, 2013 5:24 PM

    I wholeheartedly agree with this. Only a few actors can play comical angst as good as Nicolas Cage.

  • mike | March 24, 2013 4:47 PMReply

    Valley Girl was, and still is, my favorite movie of his, one of my fav movies period. Any one that grew up anytime close to this, especially if you love music, could love something about this movie. "That chick Julie is truly dazzling". Enough said.

  • Gabby | March 24, 2013 12:20 AMReply

    He beats Clive Owen in multitasking in his own sex scene in Drive Angry.

  • shark | March 23, 2013 11:58 PMReply

    Why isn't Drive Angry on here? It's a fucking amazing movie, and Cage is great in it. HE STEALS A CAR AND DRIVES OUT OF HELL.

  • jimmiecoffee | March 23, 2013 10:04 PMReply

    nicolas cage is a fantastic actor. one of the best in recent years. it amazes me when ignorant people who only see his budget films joke on him like he's ed wood reincarnated. every one of these movie is good, some great, and some downright classics.

  • Evan | March 23, 2013 6:39 PMReply

    I know people hate on him all the time, but I love some Nic Cage. The guy is great. Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona, Adaptation, The Rock, Bad Lieutenant, Bringing Out the Dead, Face Off, and Wild at Heart.

  • lily | March 23, 2013 6:16 PMReply

    I sure hope you guys do this with Keanu Reeves, it should be pretty funny! :-)

  • lily | March 23, 2013 6:15 PMReply

    I sure hope you guys do this with Keanu Reeves, it should be pretty funny! :-)

  • Jack | March 23, 2013 5:44 PMReply

    Great list, but surely Bad Lieutenant is more of a comedy than it is a crime flick. It's not like they're playing any of that shit straight, really - they set up this "murder investigation" premise and then the rest of the movie is Cage madness. A+

  • JOE | March 24, 2013 10:50 AM

    Agreed. Bad Lieutenant is an all-out dark comedy, it is not trying to be a crime flick. One of my favorite movies.

  • Andrew | March 23, 2013 5:24 PMReply

    The Weather Man.

    Forever and always, Make Mine Cage.

  • GERARD KENNELLY | March 23, 2013 3:58 PMReply

    reasons i love him ...








    SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (he produced)




    GRINDHOUSE (cameo )





    THE WICKER MAN (so bad it is funny)

  • Abraham | March 23, 2013 3:12 PMReply

    Also worth mention Peggy Sue Got Married and Honeymoon In Vegas. Great work by Cage in both films. Red Rock West deserves more attention. Great film with a stellar cast led by Cage. Nicolas Cage is one of the best actors period!

  • CARY | March 23, 2013 2:52 PMReply

    I loved romantic comedies he made before oscar: Moonstruck, Peggy Sue Got Married, Honeymoon in Vegas, Guarding Tess, It Could Happen to You

  • Jeremy | March 23, 2013 2:38 PMReply

    I don't care how many crappy STOLEN's or SEEKING JUSTICE's Nicolas Cage makes, the guy has an amazing body of work. Some great performances not discussed:

    RED ROCK WEST (seemingly totally forgotten, fantastic 90s thriller).
    THE WEATHER MAN (one of his most understated performances, completely believable).
    GUARDING TESS (very sincere, earnest performance, but still finding the humor).
    8MM (this film seems to get a lot of flack, but even if you don't like it, Nic's performance is suitably intense, his character arc is very strong).
    THE FAMILY MAN (another undervalued film. Bit cheesy at parts, but one of Brett Ratner's best films and surprisingly touching).
    WORLD TRADE CENTER (very moving, and REAL, the role has not one Nicolas Cage trademark).
    FIRE BIRDS (kidding!!!!!!!!!)

  • Mark | March 28, 2013 2:06 PM

    I agree with The Weather Man, 8MM and The Family Man all being essential Cage films. The Family Man in particular is one that I agree is undervalued probably because of the Ratner name behind it but take that away and I really enjoy some of the heart especially in relation to his daughter in the film.

  • Jeremy | March 23, 2013 7:26 PM


    Lara Flynn Boyle only added to the David Lynch-connection.

  • GERARD KENNELLY | March 23, 2013 4:00 PM

    @ JEREMY

    is it just me ?

    or did the red rock west dennis hopper character
    feel like a quasi sequel to Frank Booth from BLUE VELVET lol

  • JOE | March 23, 2013 2:14 PMReply

    It might be hyperbole, but only a little bit, but I think Cage is something of a living legend. And a fantastic, underrated actor. Looking forward to the new phase of his career, I think Mr. Cage is going to give us plenty more memorable performances.

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