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The Films Of Nicolas Cage: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 10, 2014 at 2:00PM

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).
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Snake Eyes
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Snake Eyes" (1998)
From the film’s opening moments, a virtuoso “unbroken” shot that travels around an Atlantic City sports complex, Cage is turned all the way up to 11. And a half. But that’s okay. As a corrupt cop who is unwittingly brought into a conspiracy involving the assassination of the secretary of defense (at a boxing match, no less), he injects a “who cares” attitude into the whodunit. As it turns out, the first-scene exuberance is a precursor to a more somber and complicated performance, one in which the character’s inherent lack of morality is constantly at odds with his ability as a detective. An underrated, late-era Brian De Palma mini-masterpiece that was only marred by a last minute decision to entirely remove a third-act action sequence set in a hurricane, it’s Cage at his mischievous best. For a movie called “Snake Eyes,” Cage positively slithers. [B+]

Lord of War
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Lord of War" (2005)
Andrew Niccol’s unerringly cynical political drama wasn’t seen by many but those that did were treated to a detached and bemused Nicolas Cage performance, one of his most low key in recent memory. As a nebulous arms dealer, Cage embodies the questionable opportunism that goes along with our new “global world.” Most of the time he’s just fine holding his own against the admittedly impressive cast (Ethan Hawke, Jared Leto and Ian Holm also star) but there are a handful of powerhouse sequences, like one where the arms dealer shows his vulnerability and fear while visiting an African prostitute. It’s not exactly the kind of movie you want to watch again (although it does feature a killer opening title sequence) and often errs on the side of “grim and draggy,” but if anything should get you there the first time, it’s Cage’s performance. [B-]

Birdy

"Birdy" (1984)
25 years on, “Birdy” is still a peculiarly original piece of work which stands out in Alan Parker’s canon as one of his best, and in Nicolas Cage’s as a promise of things to come -- one which he, unlike co-star Matthew Modine, would make good on. Essentially a two-hander, the film has Modine playing a mute asylum inmate for half the film, so it is Cage who carries the lion’s share of the considerable emoting duties. The story of two friends, the outgoing loose cannon Al (Cage), and the introverted bird-obsessed Birdy (Modine) after they return from separate stints in Vietnam broken in different ways, is that rarest of beasts: a subtle Vietnam film that concentrates more on the relationship between its oddball central characters and the childhood they shared than the "horrors of war" aspect -- all the while accompanied by a Peter Gabriel soundtrack, (including an instrumental “Family Snapshot” theme) which is equal parts dated synth and inspired pathos. The ending is divisive *SPOILERS* with some feeling its jaunty flippancy undermines the film’s emotional heft, and others enjoying the jokey, unexpectedly upbeat conclusion. Whatever your take on the last 30 seconds, the film has held up over time, and Cage’s performance is a treat: assured, touching and mostly restrained. Those who only know shouty, bad hair Nicolas Cage should revisit “Birdy,” and so should he. [B+]

Kick-Ass, Nicholas Cage
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Kick-Ass" (2010)
A surprisingly good blockbuster with a disarmingly mannered performance arrived in Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass,” an adaptation of Mark Millar’s ultraviolent comic about a regular kid who decides to be a superhero and faces some rough terrain getting there. The Big Daddy half of a team of homicidal superheroes, Cage plays Damon Macready, father to Mindy (rising star Chloe Moretz). When not decked out in a geeky sweater that betrays his killer instinct, Cage’s get-up looks distinctly akin to Batman. And it figures, since he based his freakishly accented delivery on Adam West of ye olde '60s Batman. The performance leaves an impression because Cage works hard to give you an idea of the relationship between father and daughter in this odd team-up. They may hunt and slaughter criminals in increasingly inventive ways, but at the end of the day, the affection is very grounded in reality. The last scene Cage shares with Moretz is especially touching and marks a key aspect of a good Nicholas Cage performance: no matter how crazy things get, Cage is always capable of circling back to the simple humanity of his character. By bringing vulnerability to a role in a superhero movie, Cage earns our accolades. [A -]

Face/Off
"Face/Off" (1997)
Really, this is a film that never should have been as entertaining as it actually was. Easily the peak of John Woo's otherwise forgettable and ill-advised venture into Hollywood filmmaking, the premise of "Face/Off" in which a CIA agent and a terrorist, who also happen to look alike, end up switching faces/identities sounds like something you would find in the Cannon Films library. But thanks to first rate performances by Cage and co-star John Travolta, the film works, entertains and wins you over into buying into the story. While Travolta gets the showier role of the CIA agent whose face is grafted onto the body of the baddie, Cage's part requires him to go from the charismatic villain (witness the totally gross opening scene where he gropes a choir member) to leading man hero. It's a tough gear change, particularly when your co-star is making the most of his scenery chewing opportunities, Cage holds his ground and transitions to the role of hero with ease. "Face/Off" would mark the last of a trio of films that included "The Rock" and "Con Air" that marked a particular kind of film — the R-rated, adult oriented action film. Bruckheimer, Bay, and Cage would all end up trolling through easy paydays in a new landscape of PG-13 tentpoles, but "Face/Off" is a reminder that Cage, for a very brief time, was the leading action man of the moment, and really, not many actors could ask for a better run of films. While he's not as off-the-wall, "Face/Off" is another just as viable side to the versatile Nic Cage. [B]

This article is related to: Nicolas Cage, Retrospective, Features, Feature, Kick Ass, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans


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