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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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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" (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" (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" (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" (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]
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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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