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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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Con Air" (1997)
Bad wigs, bad accents and an even worse premise might make "Con-Air" one of the quintessentially perfect bad movies. Nicolas Cage is ex-Army Ranger Cameron Poe, who has served his time for an unintentional manslaughter (though he’s still appropriately tortured by it). Unfortunately for him he shares his plane ride home with some of America's most grizzly offenders, played by some of America’s most stalwart character actors: John Malkovich, Danny Trejo, Dave Chappelle, Ving Rhames, M.C. Gainey and Steve Buscemi. What follows is an all-out balls-to-the-wall action film, with Poe pretending he’s one of the bad guys while secretly working to thwart them, in which he is aided by a U.S. Marshal (John Cusack). Explosions, murders, stuffed bunnies, attempted rapes and wanton property destruction ensue, along with a worrisome interlude where Buscemi, playing an affably psychotic Hannibal Lecter-style serial killer, takes some time out to play with a little girl. But the real fun of the film is Cage's reluctant action hero, who happens to save the world but is really just concerned with getting home to his wife and child, outwitting, outbrawning and generally out-badassing all those bona fide badasses. [B-]

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" (2009)
Werner Herzog, meet Nicolas Cage. Originally posited as a remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 Harvey Keitel starrer, Herzog’s 'Bad Lieutenant' is actually a standalone film featuring one of the more outlandish Nicolas Cage performances (and that’s saying something). Set in Post-Katrina New Orleans, Cage plays Sergeant Terrence McDonagh, a detective who injures his back rescuing a prisoner from a flooded cell in the opening scene. Prescribed a regular supply of Vicodin and reeling from constant pain and addicted to a variety of narcotics, McDonagh sees a drug turf killing as an opportunity to, well, act like Nicolas Cage. And so it goes. Herzog’s film got a humongous amount of press for its sometimes contemplative but often bizarre approach to storytelling and Nicolas Cage helps provide most of the thrills of what boils down to a slow, drawn-out crime flick. Whether howling the now-famous “To the break of dawn, baby” or soliciting a handjob from an all-too-willing teenager, Cage goes off the rails all too often, turning in an unfocused, puzzling performance. If McDonagh has an emotional center, it is intensely difficult to make out and Cage’s hysterics and contortion make it all the more difficult. Still, few actors could do bad with such real panache — even as a scenery chewer, Cage is not content to gnaw on the set, but would rather tear it apart teeth first. [B -]

"Bringing out the Dead" (1999)
Haggard, hollow and spiritually empty, Cage plays New York paramedic Frank Pierce who's become burned out and soulless inside as he begins to see spectral visions of the Hell's Kitchen residents he's tried to save. At first Frank becomes a near god, bringing patients back to life and feeling invincible, but a heavy psychic toll is paid when he cannot forget the victims he has lost (yes, it's a Marty Scorsese film so there are

plenty of religious overtones). While it's perhaps a one-note performance, it's what the script (by Paul Schrader) calls for and in this super stylish and underrated Scorsese picture (DP Robert Richardson's overlit halo look finally does wonders here), Cage quietly shines as the man not only trying to save a veritable angel (the daughter of a patient played by ex-wife Patricia Arquette), but also desperately in search of some kind of salvation from the brutal job and the dirty, heartless city he's forever tethered to. [B]


Valley Girl" (1983)
Nicolas Cage's "first" movie (prior to this he had gone by “Nicolas Coppola” but was worried about perceptions of nepotism because apparently his uncle is a director or something), teen flick “Valley Girl” is the 1980s mall version of "Romeo and Juliet” in which Cage plays rocker Randy, who uses his not-so-smooth moves to charm titular valley girl Julie (Deborah Foreman). Deeply believable as the rocker from the other side of town, Cage’s likability shines through, making Julie’s decision to give up her friends, status and Prom Queen role to date him seem not just understandable but right. The story, interspersed with repeated montages of L.A. scenery, unfolds to a soundtrack chock-filled with modern rock classics, and while it’s in no way Oscar-worthy, it is one of the few films geared to teen audiences that doesn't shy away from sex, power struggles, drugs and other tribulations that characterize the awkward passage from childhood to young adulthood. If you’re still unconvinced, just think, this is the film that not only allowed Cage to lay the foundation for a decade’s worth of bad-boys-with-a-heart, it also introduced America to the incredibly useful term "valley girl," and to the underrated band The Plimsouls as well. [B+]

Obviously that's not all the films, but highlights of the ones we though are worth considering as of right now. But there's surely something else you might vouch for, so as always, sound off below. - Jessica Kiang, Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez, Mark Zhuravsky, Danielle Johnsen, Katie Walsh
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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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