It’s no secret that Nicolas Cage’s taste in movie roles has changed from the days when he starred in A-list films like Raising Arizona, Moonstruck and Leaving Las Vegas. The 57-year-old actor appears to flip a coin when deciding what to make these days. Sometimes he gets lucky — The Croods gave him an animated franchise and recently Pig garnered some of the best reviews of his career — while other times he ends up in films like Outcast, a period piece whose outlandish story careens through Europe and Asia like a drunken soldier on shore leave.
It’s trendy to write Cage off as an actor throwing his talent away, more concerned with cash than art. YouTube brims with videos like Crazy Cage Moments and Cage Rage. Between them they’ve racked up millions of views, which is certainly more people — give or take several zeroes — that saw his recent bizarro-world revenge film Mandy or direct-to-oblivion domestic thriller Inconceivable. And yet, no matter how low rent some of his recent output is, he’s usually compelling.
The vids are an eye-opening compendium of Cage’s trademarked brand of extreme acting — a method of over-emoting perfected in the more than 80 movies he’s made since his debut (under his real name Nicolas Coppola) in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Citing The Incredible Hulk star Bill Bixby as a major influence, he has always been, for better and for worse, one of our most completely fearless actors.
Mom and Dad, for instance, brings an extra helping of full-throttle Cage. He calls it his favourite movie in a decade, while Glen Kenny, writing in the New York Times said, “In this morbid satire about parents trying to kill their kids, Mr. Cage has plenty of opportunity to go full him.” Cage, who forever will be best known for hits like Adaptation, National Treasure and Leaving Las Vegas, has made many other movies that are worth a second look.
One writer called Cage’s work in 1989’s Vampire’s Kiss “a grand stab at all-out, no-holds-barred comic acting or one of the worst dramatic performances in a film this year,” but decades later the movie has earned cult status because of Cage’s edgy work. The story of a man who may — or may not — be turning into a vampire is best remembered as the film in which Cage ate a live cockroach, but also features one of his most unhinged performances.
A few years later, somewhere between Honeymoon in Vegas and Guarding Tess, came Red Rock West, a genre-busting movie — Ebert said it “exists sneakily between a western and a thriller, between a film noir and a black comedy” — that unfairly barely made it to theatres. Cage hands in some of his best work as a broke but honest drifter, but only took the role after Kris Kristofferson turned it down.
Existing at the intersection of Vampire’s Kiss and Red Rock West is Wild at Heart, a film that perfectly showcases Cage’s manic energy. As Sailor, a lover boy on the run from hit men hired by his girlfriend’s mother, he’s a one-of-a-kind, an Elvis wannabe with a snakeskin jacket and an attitude. It’s a bravura performance. Like the jacket, which he says “represents a symbol of my individuality,” Wild at Heart is a symbol of his artistic individuality.
Earlier this year Willy’s Wonderland continued the saga of Cage’s baffling career choices but was a bit of fun. The idea of children’s mascots possessed by the spirits of serial killers is pure Midnight Madness and Cage adds to the movie’s unhinged playfulness with a wordless, singular performance that could only have emerged from an Oscar winner intent on letting his freak flag fly. He plays pinball, glowers, does an orgasmic dance, chugs innumerable cans of soda and dispatches mascots with ruthless efficiency. It is the kind of work we’ve come to expect from Cage and the kind of performance that only he can deliver.