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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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Con Air, Nicolas Cage
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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

"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
"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
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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

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


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