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The Films Of Nicolas Cage: A Retrospective

The Films Of Nicolas Cage: A Retrospective

4.10.14 update: You can analyze Nicolas Cage’s eccentrically eclectic career all you want. We certainly have scratched our heads over it too. Once an indie darling, Cage’s career transformed and morphed over the years into a kind of studio grotesque, but as he explained in the interview quotes linked below, to the actor it was all part of a restless, try-anything, break-all-rules plan. With David Gordon Green’s “Joe” arriving in theaters this weekend—featuring one of Cage’s best and most restrained performances in years, a real return to his roots and real acting—we thought, we’d revive this still-very relevant feature retrospective from last year. “Joe” is a small film (review here, recent interview with Cage here) and could certainly use the extra love.

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 flickLeft Behind“) have made him an even bigger laughing stock (maybe the tax problems and reported ridiculous spending habits explain these terrible tendencies).

But if you stop to take notice and perhaps cool on the cheap shot jokes for a second, one can realize that the good far outweighs the awful in his oeuvre and we always hold out hope that Cage will course-correct and end up back in quality fare. But in fact, it seems like Cage likes to switch it up as much as possible if only for his own creative sake. “If you look at the work carefully, there’s a ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and then there’s a “Knowing.’ ” And there’s a “Lord of War” and a “National Treasure”…I’m always trying to make things eclectic,” he stressed in a recent Playlist interview that took place in Berlin. And there’s some promising stuff on the way, not least of which is David Gordon Green‘s “Joe.” And it’s a signal of more good things to come. “Now I want to really go back to my roots and reinvent myself again, and go back to ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ or ‘Vampire’s Kiss,’ ” he told us. “Do these smaller, independently spirited dramatic movies. That’s the direction I want to really zero in on right now.”

With this weekend seeing the release of Cage-voiced animation “The Croods,” which looks like the biggest hit the actor’s had in a while, and while it’s no great shakes is better than anything he’s made in a few years, we thought we’d take this opportunity to run down Cage’s idiosyncratic career and sometimes wonderfully unhinged performances. Fingers crossed we get more to add to the Cage canon before too long. 

Wild At Heart” (1990)
“This snakeskin jacket is a symbol my individuality and belief in personal freedom,” is the oft-repeated maxim declared by Cage’s character Sailor Ripley in “Wild At Heart,” David Lynch‘s swooning, sexy, creepy road trip to Oz, and applies to the kooky Cage as well (the jacket used in the film was his own). Could this be Cage at his peak? His embodiment of Sailor is sensual, menacing and just plain cool — but his smoking chemistry with Laura Dern is some of the hottest ever onscreen. The Elvis nut swaggers and drawls like the King himself, crooning his ballad “Love Me,” but brings a looseness and relaxed humor to the performance, a greater feat than the high-tension campy scenery chewing evinced by the rest of the cast. He turns in a highly stylized physical performance (a rare commodity in this day and age) and manages to ground the universe of wacky characters swirling around him, with a skilled nuance and real genuine emotion. In the special features, Dern describes her mother Diane Ladd as the perfect Lynchian actor (and she is truly amazing and transcendent in this), but it could be argued that Cage, with his laissez-faire theatricality, willingness to fully engage in Lynch’s absurd hyperreality, and commitment to the truth of character and story is, in fact, the real perfect Lynchian actor. Can we cross our fingers for a reunion? [A]

Vampire’s Kiss” (1988)
While not as lauded as say “Raising Arizona,” god, Nicolas Cage was never better than he was in the late 1980s. Directed by Robert Bierman, most people have long forgotten this B-movie vampire comedy, but there’s one key thing to remember: it’s written by Joseph Minion, the man who wrote Martin Scorsese‘s dark, strange and surreal 24-hour classic, “After Hours,” and tonally the picture is just as weird. The film centers on a douchebag yuppie publishing executive (Cage) who, when he has a random sexual encounter with a woman with a fondness for neck biting (Jennifer Beals), thinks he’s turning into a vampire. Of course it’s all in his head (or is it?) and he goes to bizarre lengths to prove to himself that he’s become a bloodsucker, including losing his shit and torturing his poor assistant (Maria Conchita Alonso) with impossibly menial tasks. The role, notoriously known for Cage eating live cockroaches, is essentially a descent into madness and it’s Cage at his unhinged, manic best, but it’s well calibrated, knowing exactly when to pop like a madman and when to simmer like a deliciously semi-sane fruitcake teetering on the edge (oh, and the Looney Toons facial expressions throughout are a laugh riot). [B+].

Leaving Las Vegas” (1995)
In this loose, jazzy and affecting performance that won Nicolas Cage the Academy Award (and seemingly gave him the financial leeway to do tepid action movies for the next decade plus), he plays a surrendered man who has decided to completely bail out on life (and strangely happy with his decision); an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter who goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, only to fall in love with a prostitute (played by a superb Elisabeth Shue). Just, you know, not enough to not drink himself to death. In the skilled hands of director Mike Figgis, he turns a prolonged, potentially hard-to-watch tragedy into something artful and heartrending. And thanks to Cage’s wet performance, which wonderfully sidesteps any potential parody (since “the drunk” is a cliche as old as Hollywood itself), you feel for this character, no matter how reprehensible or irresponsible his behavior might be. What happens in ‘Vegas’ breaks your fucking heart and it certainly convinced the Academy. [A-]“The Rock” (1996)
Strange to say, and little did we know it at the time, but this dumb, overblown, ludicrously-plotted film actually represents something of a high spot for the genre and for many of the people involved. OK, saying it’s the best Michael Bay movie is very faint praise, but the combination of Ed Harris as a sympathetic villain, Sean Connery as the twinkly raffish elder lemon, a bunch of great supporting actors (like David Morse and Michael Biehn) as the various marines/SEALS, and Nic Cage as the mild-mannered chemist caught up in a situation way above his pay grade, makes for a great, fun time. We’re treated to one of Cage’s least frenetic, crazy-eyed performances and a film that is by any sensible standards deliriously over the top, but by Bay’s archetypes it’s a model of low-key restraint. But mainly “The Rock” is now remarkable for being an enjoyable trip back to what the nostalgic among us may think of as better times, when Nic Cage didn’t have to carry (read “overact in”) a film; when Bay restricted himself to threatening just the one U.S/ city with annihilation, rather than several, or the planet, or all of creation; and when Don Simpson was around to keep Jerry Bruckheimer from pussying out and going all PG family fun on us. 1996. Happier times. [B]

Moonstruck” (1987)
Thinking about it now, it sounds positively absurd. Cher and Nicolas Cage in a romantic comedy? But back in the mid-to-late ’80s it made perfect sense and resulted in the now classic Norman Jewison-directed love story “Moonstruck.” The clever turn by Cage here channels his eccentric energy into the character of Ronny Cammareri, the mutilated bakery chef who lives in the shadow of his brother, with a grudge to spare, but who is also deeply romantic. It’s Cage in a very rare role as the everyman heartthrob. And it’s the actor’s easy charm that allows the story of Loretta (Cher) having an affair with Ronny while being engaged to his brother Jonny (Danny Aiello) have the audience not only sympathize, but root for the coupling. Cage is not just raw masculinity here; he’s an opera lover and his wild emotional outbursts (“Chrissy, over on the wall, bring me the big knife. I want to cut my throat.”) mark him as both vulnerable and sexy. Yep, those are not words one would associate with Cage today, but with “Moonstruck” the actor delivers both in spades, playing a key part in the wonderful ensemble that makes the film such a pure, romantic (and yes, very funny) pleasure. [A]

Adaptation” (2002)
When some viewers claim they can’t stomach one Nicolas Cage performance, just how do you put out a movie with two of them? Well, back in 2002, Spike Jonze, hot off “Being John Malkovich,” his first collaboration with Charlie Kaufman, attempted just that. Based on Kaufman’s seemingly Kafka-esque endeavor to adapt Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief,” “Adaptation” has Kaufman writing himself writing the script into the script. Did you get all that? In case that complicates things, Kaufman also creates a fictional twin brother, Donald Kaufman, whose dumbfounded idea for a thriller reaps the kind of success the glowering Charlie can only dream of. Now the kicker: Nicolas Cage plays both brothers. And you know what? It’s the kind of performance that few other actors could pull off. Though we know the actor is onscreen in both incarnations through technical trickery, Cage nevertheless makes us care for two disparate characters, nailing Charlie’s labored existential struggles and Donald’s mischievous, laidback existence. It may not be the best Cage performance, as he skews some of Kaufman’s more personal dialogue toward histrionics, but it’s definitely a keeper and bright spot in the dark ages of Cage’s 2000s oeuvre. It also lead to his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor. [B+]

Raising Arizona” (1987)
It is not humanly possible to discuss the films of Nicolas Cage and not mention the 1987 Coen Brothers comedic masterpiece, “Raising Arizona,” which is akin to Robert De Niro‘s “Raging Bull” or Marlon Brando’s “On The Waterfront” in its virtuosity and significance in the actor’s career. Cage plays H.I. McDonnough, a recidivist con trying to make a go of it at the straight life with his ex-cop wife (Holly Hunter), but things go awry when she cannot conceive and they hatch an ill-conceived plan to steal a baby from a family that just had quintuplets and probably won’t notice one missing lil’ critter. While large credit is due to the gutbustingly funny Coen brothers dialogue — “Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase” — there’s no doubt that Cage imbues every line with either the most nuanced subtlety or the most outrageously funny manic energy (the flick boasts perhaps the best exaggerated facial contortions of all time and Cage’s Woody Woodpecker-like hair is a comedic juggernaut unto itself). Ironically, the Coens and Cage butted heads throughout and neither party enjoyed their experience. “Joel and Ethan have a very strong vision and I’ve learned how difficult it is to accept another artist’s vision. They have an autocratic nature,” he said at the time and of course has never worked with them since. Regardless, it’s one of the funniest movies ever made and Cage tour de force turn is a huge part of its success. [A+]

Matchstick Men” (2003)
In Ridley Scott’s low-key crime drama, based on the Eric Garcia novel of the same name, Cage plays a nutty (what else) thief who is planning a long con with his partner (Sam Rockwell) while at the same time trying to start a relationship with his teenage daughter (an exceptionally good Alison Lohman). Unfortunately, this stylish little movie gets weighed down by an overly elaborate twist ending, but until then the movie happily exists as an emotionally resonant genre piece. Cage never lets his penchant for show-off-y theatricality overshadow the interior complexity of the character, a man with a number of disorders who genuinely wants to see his life get back-on-track and it’s this mentality that leads credence to the tired “one last job” conceit. And it’s because of Cage that the film’s final scenes pack such a surprisingly heartfelt punch. [B+]

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]“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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