Few actors have had careers anywhere near as diverse and dynamic as Nicolas Cage. A member of the Royal Coppola Family, Cage has been in everything from goofy teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) to mind-blowing, block-busting adventures like National Treasure (2004). His acting agility is abetted by his willingness and ability to take on challenging roles that other thespians of his caliber wouldn’t think of accepting — and pulling them off without dumbing them down. As Roger Ebert once put it,
There are often lists of the great living male movie stars: De Niro, Nicholson and Pacino, usually. How often do you see the name of Nicolas Cage? He should always be up there. He’s daring and fearless in his choice of roles, and unafraid to crawl out on a limb, saw it off and remain suspended in air. No one else can project inner trembling so effectively…. He always seems so earnest. However improbable his character, he never winks at the audience. He is committed to the character with every atom and plays him as if he were him.
The filmic examples are seemingly endless, so instead of surveying his career in its entirety, I will concentrate on three representative films: Raising Arizona (1987), Matchstick Men (2003), and the indisputable greatest movie of all time, Con Air (1997).
Francis McDormand once said that one can’t make any money working on a Cohen Brothers film. While I’m sure that’s changed since (this statement was made pre-Fargo), I think most would agree that for an actor, working with Ethan and Joel Cohen is an honor, a privilege, and an opportunity to establish oneself artistically. No one has done this more fervently in one film than Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona. With his career stretched out before him like a sleepy kitten, Cage took on the lead role in a film that would define one of the many facets of his style as an actor. H. I. McDunnough is a good-for-nothing, two-bit thief who falls in love with a police officer hell-bent on raising a family. After an intermittent courtship involving H. I.’s lengthening rap sheet, the ultimately infertile couple marry and attempt to have children. Seeing a news story about a couple who has more offspring than they can handle, they decide to steel one. Hi-jinks ensue, and the doomed H.I. is caught between his old ways as a thief and his new life as a family man, with the two inextricably intertwined like so many lovers’ legs.
In the similarly quirky Wild at Heart (the plot of which I always confuse with True Romance, perhaps because of their similarly Westbound plots and blonde love interests), Cage would almost reprise this role. He was to all but abandon this kind of character later in his career, save maybe Adaptation (2002) and, our last stop, Matchstick Men (2003).
What did he abandon the weirdness for? Action, of course, and Cage’s crowning achievement, Con Air (1997) is jam-packed with it. This Jerry Bruckheimer vehicle crashes and burns in the best possible way: right into Las Vegas! Where else are you going to see oddball jokesters like Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle, and John Leguizamo teamed-up with powerhouse hunks like John Travolta, Vin Diesel, and Ving Rhames, alongside A-list actors like John Cusak, John Malkovich, Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, and Nicolas Cage in the same movie? Bob Stephenson is even in here! What happened to the casting director on this star-studded screen scorcher? Fired for awesomeness? How about the screenwriter or the director?
The Ridley Scott-directed Matchstick Men (2003) tells the story of an obsessive-compulsive con man getting conned out of everything. Sam Rockwell plays the partner-cum-con (Frank Mercer) who uses a young girl, Angela (played by Alison Lohman), posing as Roy Waller’s (Cage) estranged daughter. Matchstick Men (and Adaptation, pictured below, by proxy) is less important for Cage’s role per se than it is for his role at the time it happened: dead in the middle of a string of Cage-fronted action movies. In the midst of constant reminders of his action-hero status, Matchstick Men recalled a younger, weirder Nicolas Cage, and reminded everyone of his immense on-screen strengths.
So, in brief, Nicolas Cage is the greatest actor to ever entertain a darkened theater. I dare you to come up with a stronger, more genuine, more diverse body of work.
“…I was just admirin’ your cage.” Here’s the trailer for The Greatest Movie of All Time, Con Air (1997) [runtime: 2:23]:
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).