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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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The Rock

"The Rock" (1996)
Strange to say, and little did we know it at the time, but this dumb, overblown, ludicrously-plotted film actually represents something of a high spot for the genre and for many of the people involved. OK, saying it’s the best Michael Bay movie is very faint praise, but the combination of Ed Harris as a sympathetic villain, Sean Connery as the twinkly raffish elder lemon, a bunch of great supporting actors (like David Morse and Michael Biehn) as the various marines/SEALS, and Nic Cage as the mild-mannered chemist caught up in a situation way above his pay grade, makes for a great, fun time. We’re treated to one of Cage’s least frenetic, crazy-eyed performances and a film that is by any sensible standards deliriously over the top, but by Bay’s archetypes it's a model of low-key restraint. But mainly “The Rock” is now remarkable for being an enjoyable trip back to what the nostalgic among us may think of as better times, when Nic Cage didn’t have to carry (read "overact in") a film; when Bay restricted himself to threatening just the one U.S/ city with annihilation, rather than several, or the planet, or all of creation; and when Don Simpson was around to keep Jerry Bruckheimer from pussying out and going all PG family fun on us. 1996. Happier times. [B]


Moonstruck" (1987)
Thinking about it now, it sounds positively absurd. Cher and Nicolas Cage in a romantic comedy? But back in the mid-to-late '80s it made perfect sense and resulted in the now classic Norman Jewison-directed love story "Moonstruck." The clever turn by Cage here channels his eccentric energy into the character of Ronny Cammareri, the mutilated bakery chef who lives in the shadow of his brother, with a grudge to spare, but who is also deeply romantic. It's Cage in a very rare role as the everyman heartthrob. And it's the actor's easy charm that allows the story of Loretta (Cher) having an affair with Ronny while being engaged to his brother Jonny (Danny Aiello) have the audience not only sympathize, but root for the coupling. Cage is not just raw masculinity here; he's an opera lover and his wild emotional outbursts ("Chrissy, over on the wall, bring me the big knife. I want to cut my throat.") mark him as both vulnerable and sexy. Yep, those are not words one would associate with Cage today, but with "Moonstruck" the actor delivers both in spades, playing a key part in the wonderful ensemble that makes the film such a pure, romantic (and yes, very funny) pleasure. [A]

When some viewers claim they can’t stomach one Nicolas Cage performance, just how do you put out a movie with two of them? Well, back in 2002, Spike Jonze, hot off “Being John Malkovich,” his first collaboration with Charlie Kaufman, attempted just that. Based on Kaufman’s seemingly Kafka-esque endeavor to adapt Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief,” “Adaptation” has Kaufman writing himself writing the script into the script. Did you get all that? In case that complicates things, Kaufman also creates a fictional twin brother, Donald Kaufman, whose dumbfounded idea for a thriller reaps the kind of success the glowering Charlie can only dream of. Now the kicker: Nicolas Cage plays both brothers. And you know what? It’s the kind of performance that few other actors could pull off. Though we know the actor is onscreen in both incarnations through technical trickery, Cage nevertheless makes us care for two disparate characters, nailing Charlie’s labored existential struggles and Donald’s mischievous, laidback existence. It may not be the best Cage performance, as he skews some of Kaufman’s more personal dialogue toward histrionics, but it’s definitely a keeper and bright spot in the dark ages of Cage’s 2000s oeuvre. It also lead to his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor. [B+]
Raising Arizona

Raising Arizona" (1987)
It is not humanly possible to discuss the films of Nicolas Cage and not mention the 1987 Coen Brothers comedic masterpiece, "Raising Arizona," which is akin to Robert De Niro's "Raging Bull" or Marlon Brando's "On The Waterfront" in its virtuosity and significance in the actor's career. Cage plays H.I. McDonnough, a recidivist con trying to make a go of it at the straight life with his ex-cop wife (Holly Hunter), but things go awry when she cannot conceive and they hatch an ill-conceived plan to steal a baby from a family that just had quintuplets and probably won't notice one missing lil' critter. While large credit is due to the gutbustingly funny Coen brothers dialogue — "Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase" — there's no doubt that Cage imbues every line with either the most nuanced subtlety or the most outrageously funny manic energy (the flick boasts perhaps the best exaggerated facial contortions of all time and Cage's Woody Woodpecker-like hair is a comedic juggernaut unto itself). Ironically, the Coens and Cage butted heads throughout and neither party enjoyed their experience. "Joel and Ethan have a very strong vision and I've learned how difficult it is to accept another artist's vision. They have an autocratic nature," he said at the time and of course has never worked with them since. Regardless, it's one of the funniest movies ever made and Cage tour de force turn is a huge part of its success. [A+]

Matchstick Men
"Matchstick Men" (2003)
In Ridley Scott’s low-key crime drama, based on the Eric Garcia novel of the same name, Cage plays a nutty (what else) thief who is planning a long con with his partner (Sam Rockwell) while at the same time trying to start a relationship with his teenage daughter (an exceptionally good Alison Lohman). Unfortunately, this stylish little movie gets weighed down by an overly elaborate twist ending, but until then the movie happily exists as an emotionally resonant genre piece. Cage never lets his penchant for show-off-y theatricality overshadow the interior complexity of the character, a man with a number of disorders who genuinely wants to see his life get back-on-track and it’s this mentality that leads credence to the tired “one last job” conceit. And it’s because of Cage that the film’s final scenes pack such a surprisingly heartfelt punch. [B+]
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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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