The Misunderstood Genius of Nicolas Cage
Nic Cage is one of my favorite action movie actors.
However, Nic Cage is also one of my favorite actors in not action movies. Whaddaya call them? Boring movies? Is that right? It sounds right.
Now, that doesn’t mean best. It just means that, for better or worse, putting Nic Cage in your movie will improve my chances of seeing it roughly 800%.
I love the character work he’s done. The dumb but well-meaning dad-to-be (by force if necessary) in Raising Arizona, the con man in Matchstick Men, or the writer with the impossible book in Adaptation are all great roles, and anyone looking to bring the man down tends to “forget” those films when mocking his other roles.
But here’s the thing, those other roles are also great. I say, without a hint of irony or tongue-in-cheek-ness, that the Rock is one of my favorite movies. Probably not Top Five material, but the point is it is endlessly entertaining and every time it’s on I stop what I’m doing to take in all the mayhem. A lot of that has to do with Cage.
I saw Kick-Ass a few weekend ago, mostly because I had some time to kill, but also because it has Nic Cage dressed up like Christian Bale Batman, talking like Adam West Batman, and dispatching bad guys like Ray Stevenson Punisher.
Christ, I’m only human.
I ended up loving the movie due to a sense of energy and underlying hope that the comic never even approached, and also because the movie is entirely insane.
This combination of explosions, damaged characters, and mental illness is right in Nic Cage’s wheelhouse.
I have a theory. Would you like to hear my theory? Well you don’t have a choice. Unless you close your browser window.
Please don’t close your browser window.
My theory is this, every time Nic Cage sits down to read a script, he somehow, due to a metric we’ll never know, or maybe just a mental alchemy unknown even to himself, decides exactly how weird the movie is and then never backs down from that invisible line. Watch his movies, and like Swayze and Keanu, he never blinks. He never lets the audience think he’s in on the joke.
And that, my friends, is why he’s brilliant, and why any time a movie doesn’t work it’s because the rest of the movie didn’t step up with him. No one else, other actors, the art department, or the director could match his fucking crazy and the movie suffers.
Here’s a list of directors who worked on movies where Nic Cage’s performance was praised:
- The Coen Brothers
- Franics Ford Coppola
- Michael ‘Fucking’ Bay (mainly by me)
- Ridley Scott
- Spike Jonze
- Andrew Niccol
- Gore Verbinski
- Matthew Vaughn
And every one of those movies had one or two things going for it. The first is an underlying, permeating weirdness that settled throughout the entire movie. The stories took place in a world slightly left of center.
The second, they were so fucking nuts that you had to embrace the over the top nature simply to not be consumed and overwhelmed by it.
For example, in Pirates of the Caribbean, who stepped up to the weird and over the top elements of those movies, Johnny Depp or Orlando Bloom? There’s a reason people dress up like Captain Jack Sparrow and not Billy Dumps (okay, I looked it up, his character’s name was Will Turner).
Most actors who turn in a performance like Heath Ledger did in the Dark Knight are, rightfully, lauded for their efforts and ability. Yet, Nic Cage brings that exact same crazy and intensity to every role he ever plays.
The scene in Kick-Ass where we see him put on his helmet is a bizarre cross between a brave applying his war paint and a transvestite preparing for cabaret, and HE KNOWS IT. It was a conscious decision on his part!
Jesus, when he’s shooting his daughter, it’s not weird in the movie, let alone, real life. If you saw that, you’d just sort of shrug and be like, ‘hey, I just saw Nic Cage. Hm? Oh, he was shooting a little girl. You want pizza or burgers for dinner?’
Even when he’s the straight man, like in the Rock,he still finds ways to bring that Cageness to bear. Let’s re-examine when his girlfriend comes back after he’s defused the nerve gas bomb, and she’s about to reveal she’s pregnant.
All he had to do is sit there. He could have a can of coke in his hand and the TV on, or he could be holding a book. Does he take the easy way out? Nope. He’s in his underwear, playing the Beatles in the background, and angrily pulling on the strings of a guitar. He’s not playing, or strumming, or plucking, he’s yanking on them sumbitches.
Again, do you think the script had that? Nope, Cage probably left his trailer dressed like that, holding the guitar, and completely straight faced told Bay what he was going to do, and Bay, stepping up, high fives him, yells ’action,’ and then records it FOREVER.
Now take Ghost Rider, written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, the man responsible in some form or another for Simon Birch, Big Bully, Daredevil, and Elektra (to be fair he also did Grumpy Old Men). It’s a movie that’s about Satan’s bounty hunter. He’s a flaming skeleton that wears a spiked leather jacket inhabiting the body of the world’s greatest stunt rider, Johnny Blaze.
Let’s see, insane story, fucked up characters, Satan, cool job, awesome name, should be a slam dunk, right?
Nope, because in a story about Satan’s bloodhound, who wields a flaming whip chain and a shotgun that shoots hellfire, no one dared approach Cage on top of the mountain. If the entire movie had the same intensity as his first transformation into the Ghost Rider, it may have still not been a box office success, but goddamnit, it would have been an exciting movie that for decades would have left audiences wondering who organized all those mental patients long enough to shoot a movie.
Instead, Cage is surrounded by anchors who just don’t get it. They keep trying to ground the demonic biker movie.
Functional crazy is hard to come by. Most crazy people tend to create tuning forks out of auto parts to communicate with the aliens that only live in their brains, or adopt a thousand cats. We need to embrace people who can be nuts and work. Furthermore, look at the current crop of actors and the rising generation of New Hollywood. Bland, boring, publicist directed barely sentient haircuts.
Oliver Reed used to get into sword fights with his directors; John Wayne got into a helicopter for the express purpose of hunting and killing Dennis Hopper; Dennis Hopper was Dennis Hopper; Daniel Day-Lewis lived in the woods for months to prepare for Last of the Mohicans and stayed in character throughout the filming of Gangs of New York to the point that they had to get him a white assistant.
These people are national treasures, and Cage is cut from the same bat-shit crazy cloth, and damn it, that should be rewarded lest we’re stuck with nothing by Taylor Lautner and Tatum Channing as leading men.
So the next time you’re watching TV, and Face/Off is on TBS, or a drunken friend (me) puts on the Rock,don’t bitch and moan. Instead, be like Nic Cage, and just fucking run with it.
God knows he’s doing it for you.