I think Nicolas Cage is the best actor currently working in Hollywood, and here’s why. The man is eminently watchable no matter what movie he’s starring in. When he’s on, and given material to really sink his teeth into (Adaptation, Leaving Las Vegas, I’ll even go to bat for The Weather Man), he’s an actor of astounding restraint, able to parlay the madness that seems to be boiling under the surface of every appearance he makes onscreen into a relatable and yet commanding tension.
Those aren’t the roles I want to talk about this week, though. The real reason that Mr. Cage gets the above distinction is that he elevates bad movies to something else. Now, this isn’t the gift that, say, Phillip Seymour Hoffman has for making a bad movie better by his presence. No, the Cage might not make terrible material better, but he makes it rise to meet his own brand of histrionic scenery-chewing. That’s a true movie star, he who commands the screen no matter what kind of film he’s starring in.
So, with his best-of-the-year candidate for “most heroic arrest” still fresh in everyone’s minds this week (seriously, I want to know how you get so drunk that your house is no longer your house), I want to take a look at five of the grand master’s best crazy turns. Some of the films are good, some not so much, but all are profoundly watchable, and it’s all because of Hollywood’s last great national treasure.
Sadly, National Treasure in both its incarnations did not make the cut. I’d never be able to manage a better segue if it had, though.
(Also: There are spoilers aplenty, and some of these links are varied levels of NSFW.)
1. The Wicker Man (2006)
There’s a whole bunch that’s wrong with Neil LaBute’s attempted remake of the 1973 horror classic about a demon-ridden policeman attempting to uncover the secrets of a bizarre island populated almost solely by women. By the standards of some, Cage’s go-for-broke turn, full of twitching and profuse sweating, is the center of that. However, in a movie that’s almost completely amateur in every other facet of its being, it’s this madness that elevated the remake to a sort of cult status. Of course, the classic YouTube reel that sprung from it didn’t hurt matters either.
2. Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
Vampire’s Kiss is a decent film, with less-than-great production value, but is in this case elevated by a crazy Cage performance. It fits here, too, in telling the tale of Peter Loew, the executive of a publishing company who picks a vampire up in a nightclub (a comely Jennifer Beals), is seduced and bitten, and spends the rest of the film falling apart as he becomes convinced that he, too, is now becoming a vampire. The film’s shrewd play is that for much of the runtime, it’s unknown whether Loew is actually becoming a vampire or just going insane. This culminates in a virtuoso sequence in which Loew imagines introducing his new girlfriend to his therapist, but in reality is standing on the street, wielding a 2×4 and conversing with the corner of a building while covered in blood.
3. Gone In 60 Seconds (2000)
I love this movie. I’ll openly cop to that. I love that stealing a car basically involves walking up to it while a Moby remix plays, moving a steel bar around and driving away. I love that there’s an entire gang of veteran car thieves, all of whom are too old for this shit, and that one of them is a mostly mute Vinnie Jones. I love that Robert Duvall laughs through about half his dialogue onscreen. Most importantly, I love Cage’s performance, which takes what’s usually a downer by his standards (him attempting a straightfaced performance in a bad movie is not a fun thing to watch, most of the time) and transforms Seconds into an inexplicably entertaining action lark. From the sleepy-eyed line delivery early on to the hand-shaking verbal flurries that come a mile a minute by the end, combined with the essential Cage Bug Eyes (patent pending) during the film’s extended chase scene, this is a perfect example of his ability to force a bad movie to step its game up. On a more serious note, that chase scene is almost singlehandedly brought down by some God-awful 2000-era CGI.
4. Face/Off (1997)
Many will say that this is the definitive gold standard for Nicolas Cage overacting. It’s definitely in the conversation (I think #5 trumps, for reasons I’ll get to in a second), but it’s possibly the most deliriously fun of his starring turns. In what’s arguably John Woo’s best American movie (and possibly his best movie period; this is a damned great action film no matter which way you slice it), Cage has the curious experiment of playing himself, and then playing John Travolta playing himself. As Castor Troy, a feral villain bent on destroying the life of Travolta’s noble CIA agent, Cage is hilarious; within the first ten minutes of the movie he’s already dressed as a priest and led a choir in song while lecherously coming on to teenagers. Once the two switch faces in the film (for reasons I won’t even try to explain here), Cage gets to play an even more exaggerated version of himself, through the filter of a man trying to play a caricature of himself. This is surprisingly layered stuff for a summer action movie, and that’s why Face/Off still holds up to this day, but really, it could’ve been a disaster and we’d still have this.
5. Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009)
This is a curious case for Nicolas Cage’s overacting, and also one of his best performances, because as actor-director matches go, you can’t get much better than pairing one of the most notoriously strange actors in Hollywood with Werner Herzog, a man who has been shot during an interview and once made a native tribe in the Amazon pull a decommissioned oil tanker up a mudhill for filmic authenticity. It’s a match made in heaven, and in Bad Lieutenant Herzog does what, somehow, no filmmaker thought to do before: Instead of getting Cage to rein in the histronics in order to facilitate a good performance, Herzog builds a film around Cage at his wildest. The film slowly builds in tension, following Cage’s Lt. Terrence McDonough as he develops an increasingly hazardous drug habit and is forced to use his half-lucid wits to survive. It’s one of the great crime films of the past decade, at the very least, because it’s completely unlike any you’ve ever seen, and there’s not another actor alive who could’ve fully inhabited this role with the same conviction and assured gravity that Cage brings. Plus, I mean, he smokes crack with that guy who pimps rides. And that’s pretty cool.