The (Nearly) Definitive Guide to Nicolas Cage
by Gino Fanelli | published Sep. 14th, 2015
Nicolas Cage is, undoubtedly, the hero cinema has always needed. That doesn't mean he only acts in good movies.
On the contrary, Nicolas Cage has played in uncountable piece-of-shit films. You can say the director was bad, the cinematography was bad, the score was bad and the script was bad; but never Nicolas Cage. The man, despite his undefinable acting technique and all of his bizarre eccentricities, has never made a movie worse solely by his presence. Here, I will preempt this series of reviews of Cage films with a disclaimer: there is no such thing as a bad Nicolas Cage movie. The great ones are akin to Cirque Du Soleil: elegant, mesmerizing and lingering with you long after the show ends. The bad ones are like the same Cirque Du Soleil, only on fire: horrible, painful to watch, yet still sickeningly and shamefully enjoyable.
"The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans"
This Werner Herzog directed gem will someday gain the recognition it deserves as one of the greatest films of the 2000s. Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a drug addled New Orleans detective tap-dancing on the triangular border of insanity, corruption and brilliance. In his pursuit of criminal mastermind Big Fate (Xzibit), McDonagh spirals ever downward into a pit of madness, prodding the audience to question their support of an antihero so far beyond redemption. Rich in atmosphere, humor, action madness and breaks of bizarre psychedelia, "Port of Call New Orleans" is an absolute must watch.
Directed by David Gordon Green, this heavily stylized 2013 film revels in a dense atmosphere rich in despair and the monotony of southern poverty. Centered around ex-con Joe Ransom's blooming relationship with beaten and desperate youth Gary (Ty Sheridan), "JOE" borrows notes from 2012's rave McCoughnhey flick "Mud," which featured Sheridan in a near identical role. However, "JOE" separates itself with a protagonist who often borders on sociopathy. Joe is a true dysfunctional outsider, yet set with an innate sense of morality that culminates in the film's final act. As the credits roll with an ambiguous finale, we are left with a truly touching, tense piece of cinema that will linger heavily on the watcher for days to come.
Centered around Cage's ex-con Hi McDunnough and Holly Hunter's cop Edwina, "Raising Arizona" follows the unlikely couple's kidnapping of a baby from a set of quintuplets, quickly devolving into a riotous series of criminal misadventures. With a delightful cameo from Coen Brothers favorite John Goodman, "Raising Arizona" toys with the heavy issues of criminality through incessantly sharp wit and humor. Akin to a prototype of "The Big Lebowski," in a sense, where the Jeff Bridge's cult classic succeeded in presenting an insanely nuanced tale draped in over the top characters and plot devices, "Raising Arizona" attempts to do the same, but cannot help but sometimes feel muddled.
"Leaving Las Vegas"
"Leaving Las Vegas" loses a point for being an unquestionably difficult film to watch and a surefire disappointment for any viewer expecting a Nicolas Cage popcorn flick. Directed by Mike Figgis, "Leaving Las Vegas" centers around Cage's failed writer Ben Anderson traveling to Vegas with dreams of drinking himself to death. Accompanied by prostitute Sera (Elisabeth Shue), who quickly falls for Anderson, "Leaving Las Vegas" plays mercilessly with our concepts of morality, mortality, failure and the ambiguous meaning of success. It's powerful in its own right and leaves the viewer with an endless list of existentialist quandaries to mull over.
"Lord of War"
Directed by Andrew Niccol, "Lord of War" stands out in the bevy of mediocre Cage-centered action films by featuring not only a coherent plot line, but an amusing and insightful narration from Cage's arms dealing protagonist Yuri Orlov. With competent performances from Jared Leto and Ethan Hawke, "Lord of War" documents the fall of the USSR and the rise of global terrorism with surprising lucidity, though on occasions bumbling, and confusing comic breaks with political insight. Perhaps this is the closest we'll ever get to a Tarantino/Cage collaboration, but in lieu of that dream pairing, "Lord of War" is a suitable replacement.
Directed by Simon West, "Con Air" is the absolute pinnacle of over the top Cage action flicks. It is his Die Hard, Rambo and Terminator all wrapped up in one monstrous, aerial piece of cinematic insanity. "Con Air" is reminiscent of an eight ball of cocaine deciding to bypass the screenwriter intermediary and write a script itself, complete with an inexplicably star-studded cast featuring John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi and Ving Rhames. Cage plays Army Ranger turned convict Cameron Poe, sent on the Jailbird, a prison transport plane, to his release. In short, shit gets crazy on the plane. A better man than myself could succinctly sum up the explosive madness of Con Air, but instead I encourage you to just gather your best line-up of alcohol and illicit substances and try it out for yourself.
Here we find a second West/Cage nonsensical action flick collaboration. Let's be clear, "Stolen," down to its title, is a complete and total ripoff of Pierre Morel's "Taken." Cage plays Wil "Gum" Montgomery, a family man bank robber with a heart of gold, who, following an eight year prison stretch, hits a rough patch while trying to go straight when his villainous, jilted, one-legged psychopath of an ex-partner kidnaps his teenage daughter. "Stolen" is one giant ball of cliches that doesn't attempt to hide the fact that it is a joke of a film, which is respectable in its own right. You can, however, find one of the most absurd bank robbery scenes in the history of film near the climax of "Stolen." Hint: It involves an industrial acetylene torch, a bank vault filled with bricks of gold and a miraculously placed sewer tunnel.
"National Treasure" Series
You know the plots of these movies. Nicolas Cage uncovers America's secrets while you burrow your face into your fifth grade social studies class desk. Your teacher sits with his head facing downward as the aroma of tepid coffee blended with Skol reaches ever upward from his mug. You were young and innocent and were so sure life was going to pan out with rainbows and happiness. You didn't have to think about rough divorces or $25,000 a year salaries. You just could stare blankly as Nic Cage pours lemon juice on the constitution. You were a naive little shit, but life will hit you one day too, and maybe then you'll appreciate the warm, nostalgic embrace of these Turteltaub directed monstrosities.
"The Wicker Man"
Cage co-starring with Ellen Burstyn in a horror film should be a recipe for something delightfully quirky with some semblance of emotional depth. This is not what happens. "Wicker Man" makes no attempt to even broach a coherent story. Everything in "Wicker Man" is tailored for disappointment. It is a third date concluded with the line "I think we should see other people." It is a cheeseburger in which someone forgot both the cheese and burger. It is coming home from an extended vacation to find your family dog dead and a police officer holding your well-hidden stash. Even the tremendously terrible elements of "Wicker Man" don't add up to campy B-movie cheese. Avoid at all costs.