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]


"Adaptation" (2002)
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+]