Image by Matt Graves
I’ve long been a fan of Nicolas Cage. I liked him without any irony, no tongue in cheek, no “ifs ands or buts.” Back in the 1980s, that wasn’t a crazy thing to say.
From his first starring role in 1983’s ‘Valley Girl,’ a personal favorite 1980s teen romantic comedy, he showed that he had something, some offbeat-yet-charming charisma that drew people to him. He stood out.
Then he showed up in some roles in some more “actorly” films, putting in strong performances in ‘Racing with the Moon’ (1984) and ‘Birdy’ (1984), demonstrating a bit more depth and range from comedy to drama.
And then he started having some breakout performances, turning him more into a star than a cult actor, though maintaining some truly oddball performances, from the goofy wheezer in ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ (1986), the injured baker in ‘Moonstruck’ (1987), and his perhaps most over-the-top comedic turn in ‘Vampire’s Kiss’ (1988), to his sublime performance in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece ‘Raising Arizona ‘(1987). And in cementing his cult status by starring as the Elvis-inspired “Sailor” in David Lynch’s ‘Wild at Heart’ (1990), the man could seemingly do no wrong.
And yet, somehow, he did.
Cage started making more mainstream Hollywood films, while still taking great turns in good indie fare, like John Dahl’s neo-noir, ‘Red Rock West’ (1993). But he also began making movies like ‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ (1992), ‘It Could Happen to You’ (1994), and ‘Trapped in Paradise’ (1994), showing an interest, and perhaps a ken for, the mainstream romantic comedy.
But I think I know exactly where to draw the line. Cage won the Academy Award for Best Actor for 1995’s ‘Leaving Las Vegas,’ which, while intended to be a more actorly film, I thought was kind of a pile of crap. But I was still glad for his recognition, having followed him so far along. But either legitimacy went to his head or something else occurred, and the next thing we see is a buffed up Cage playing the action star, first in Michael Bay’s 1996 film ‘The Rock,’ then again in another Jerry Bruckheimer flick, Simon West’s ‘Con Air’ (1997).
Sure, Cage’s work has always had aspects of humor. He’s known to add color to the characters that he plays, including often coming up with the best lines (‘Con Air’s’ “Put the bunny in the box,” for example).
It was in 1999 that former friend and fellow actor Sean Penn (with whom Cage had appeared in both ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ (1982) and ‘Racing with the Moon’) publicly criticized Cage for selling out. He said that Cage was “not an actor anymore”, a statement that, while condescending and preachy, recognized that something had occurred in Cage’s career, something that took him a wholly enjoyable performer and transitioned him into his current stage: a semi-guilty pleasure.
Now arguably, Cage has made these kinds of movies before, and it’s not as if he hasn’t appeared in some decent stuff. I have stayed a fan of John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), and I thought that he was quite strong in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999), and even Spike Jonze used him to good comic effect in Adaptation (2002).
From Good to Bad to Ugly
The guilty pleasure factor had been building for a while, but really came to a head in 2006, when Cage starred in Neil LaBute’s misogynistic remake of ‘The Wicker Man.’ While he was working with a somewhat interesting director, the material was below B-movie quality, and what resulted was the first of the truly “so bad it’s good” Nicolas Cage movies.
Followed up with his first foray into the “Super Hero movie” genre, Cage appeared in the definitively B-movie ‘Ghost Rider.’ It had been rumored in the early 2000s that Cage had been lobbying to play Superman. Cage’s appeal has never been Brad Pitt-like good looks, but rather something akin to off-beat charm and quirkiness. He was already 36 at the time, and age hadn’t been gentle to his hairline. So, instead, six years later, he’s Marvel Comic’s Johnny Blaze (a B-list comic book character, though with cult following) who spends his action time with a CGI flaming skull for a head.
The movie was actually kind of fun. Pretty bad, but kind of fun. And Cage was quite easily the best thing about it. These will come to be the common thread of the good bad-Cage movies. Not a Hollywood blockbuster, but a Hollywood genre film, not quite direct-to-video, but also not a record-setter. And in the midst of a lot of nonsense that could be just flat-out awful, we have Cage, hamming sincerely, charming, chewing the scenery, and making the whole damn thing kind of fun.
My favorite of these movies is Next (2007), an action-heavy adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story (again with the cult appeal). Cage plays a guy who can see only a couple of minutes into the future, not the most useful of superpowers, but one that gets him to be dodging rolling logs, bullets, and crashing vehicles like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (1999), substitute a bit of a mullet for the neo-bondage future gear.
The remake of ‘Bangkok Dangerous’ (2008) fell more on the side of just embarrassing. But again with last summer’s ‘Knowing’ (2009), we have a hybrid of Cage’s other current career trope: a middle-of-the-road, highly derivative PG-13 action film, a la National Treasure (2004) and National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007). San Francisco Chronicle editor Peter Hartlaub noted “If you see only one bad movie this year, definitely make it ‘Knowing.’” And while I didn’t find ‘Knowing’ half as fun as ‘Ghost Rider,’ I recognized that I am not alone in the appreciation of the delightfully bad Nicolas Cage film.
The Good-Bad Masterpiece
But then we come to the good-though-bad Nicolas Cage pinnacle, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009), director Werner Herzog’s reimagining of the Abel Ferrara cult film Bad Lieutenant (1992). This bad film — and please trust me, it is not a good film, though it has gotten some positive reviews — is perhaps the ultimate in Nicolas Cage post-Oscar career. He plays a New Orleans detective who, after injuring his back, becomes addicted to pain medication, prostitutes, and robbing people, all while trying to catch the killers of an immigrant family. He spends the entire film with one shoulder hiked up above the other, wincing in pain, and spouting some of his most hilarious dialog ever, a la “Everyone should have a lucky crack pipe!”
It’s the kind of bravura performance that you only get in a really bad movie. It’s so good that it makes the whole movie worth the while, by far the only thing that makes the movie worth the while. And while this film is outside of the Hollywood mainstream, Cage clearly knew that this was the opportunity to ham it up, yuk it up, and go absolutely fucking crazy.
I predict its cult status for years to come.
And maybe more people will come to learn to love this new Nicolas Cage. His personal life is as kooky as some of his film roles, and he’ll have to keep making new ones to pay off all the debt that’s being touted in the tabloids.
He’s a strange, riveting force, an actor who could be well utilized in the right hands, but seemingly an actor who takes roles where he still has the most artistic license of anyone on the set. And given the roles that he’s signed up for in the coming year or two, we’ll be adding to this list, expanding it, and almost certainly reveling in it.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans
For more of Ken’s take on movies, check out The Kennelco Film Diary