Here's my 5000 word Cage Match. Will be wittled down to more manageable size for the year-end Buff mag, but here is the unabridged version for those who want to enter the CAGE!
Nicolas Cage is an enigma. He is Jekyll and Hyde. Born out of Hollywood royalty (his birth surname is Coppola) only to recently descend into a critical black hole that on the surface seems to shame any connection, however untenable, to Apocalypse Now. My thesis is that both Nicolas Cage, the A-list, oscar winning actor, and Nic Cage, the current king of trashy B-movies, can be celebrated equally, and are in fact more impressive when they stand side-by-side.
Cage began his career as a goofy hunk with roles in films such as Valley Girl (1983), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and Vampire's Kiss (1988). These titles are little more than 80's fluff comedies, and Cage shows spark, but in the end can do little more than squint and flex his muscles, due to the overall quality of the film making. With a few killer scripts and memorable performances, however, Cage ensured his career had staying power. With Moonstruck (1987), Raising Arizona (1987), Wild at Heart (1990) and Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and more recently with Adaptation (2002) and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) he combined his goof-hunk with a more energized, manic presence on screen. In these 5 titles he is a tour-de-force, brilliant and off-beat, a raving hound-dog. This is Nicholas Cage. Strangely he is a relative anomaly in his own filmography.
Starting with The Rock in 1996, he transformed himself into a leading action star and a huge box-office draw. He has made over 20 over-the-top B-Action movies over the last 15 years. This Is Nic Cage. With steadily receding from the brow yet ever-growing towards the shoulders hair and scrawny jowls he now blasts through scripts whose plots are so far-fetched as if to make up for his relatively stoic poor-man's Bruce Willis. In titles such as Knowing (2009), Bangkok Dangerous (2008), Next (2007), Ghost Rider (2007) and others, he is often saving the world and a damsel in distress, and appearing to be the least likely to do it. He doesn't nail one-liners like his action-star peers do, but tentatively mumbles them to himself while looking up like a sweating mannequin. The Nic Cage of the late 90's and 2000's has brought us an unlikely bunch of self-reflective B-movies, that (jn the right mood) are a total blast. In the hands of Schwarzenegger or Stallone, these would be forgettable. With Cage there is more fun than muscles to be had; he is consciously making films to suspend disbelief. Nothing is realistic, or even nerd-serious as are many of the comic book movies being pumped out of the studios these days.
As a result of this professional bi-polarism his filmography is singular in the history of film. The Cage Match below uses the play-off structure familiar to pro-sport fans and will be a face/off between Nicolas and Nic, between the star of hip coke addled comedies and dramas and the current King of B-Movies.
Moonstruck v. Valley Girl
Acclaimed at the time of it's release, but steadily forgotten as time goes by, this a heart-felt comedic gem. Cage is sensational in his over-wrought melo-dramatic portrayal of a blue-collar Italian who covets his brother's wife. With his rippling muscles and tortured-romantic monologues, in this film he breaks out and shows how much he can get out of a good script.
Valley Girl (1983): One of Cage's earliest appearances on the big screen, Valley Girl is noteworthy for capturing the excessive vanity of teens in the 80s. Basically the plot follows the culture clash of a doomed romance between the 'hardcore' punk of the inner-city (Cage) v. the sheltered valley girl of the suburbs (Deborah Foreman). The hip dialogue between the 'valley' teens is so dated at this point that they appear to be speaking in code, and takes a few moments to digest their insipid conversations. Cage gestures towards his abilities as a hyperbolic performer. Note: The director of the film, Martha Coolidge, was upset when Cage showed up on set with his chest hair shaved into a bizarre sort of triangle (which we glimpse in the opening moments of the film where he does his best 'Bay Watch' impression).
Winner: Moonstruck. Really not much of a fight here. Valley Girl is charming in it's way, but really doesn't compare to the comic/melodramatic gem that is Moonstruck.
Raising Arizona v. Matchstick Men
Raising Arizona (1987): Simply one of the funniest films of all time (as well as in the mix for the best Coen Bros. film (no small feat)). Cage has never been better as he decides to remedy his wife's barren womb by stealing one the quintuplets recently born to local furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona. Still in burly hunk form, Nicolas foregrounds his breakout in Moonstruck with a laugh-out-loud slapstick performance. He nails the role as a dopey white-trash ex-con.
Matchstick Men (2003) : A cool little caper comedy where Nicolas and Sam Rockwell run a successful con, selling water-filtration devices at ten times the price. Cage plays an agoraphobe, constantly sweating and wringing his hands, playing off the success he had with Adaptation the year previous. The long-lost child plot device is mined for it's comedic affections on Cage, until the forced happy ending leaves much to be desired. A step below some of Cages best comedies, but still worth a look.
Winner: Raising Arizona. Another early round knock-out from where I'm sitting. While Raising Arizona is a film that can be easily re-watched every couple years or so (even for those who aren't Cage fans), Matchstick isn't memorable enough to have that staying power or reach cult status.
Wild at Heart v. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Wild at Heart (1990): Although it won at Cannes upon it's release, it is now generally viewed as one of David Lynch's lesser efforts. Perhaps that has merit when viewed next to Lynch's other master-strokes, but out of that context it's still accomplished film making. Half rock n roll road movie, and half Wizard of Oz re-make, it flounders with perhaps too many ideas and bizarre characters. The reason to watch this is Cage as Sailor Ripley, the snakeskin wearing outcast, who takes his girlfriend (Lynch favourite Laura Dern) out on the road upon his release from prison. Lynch gives Cage free-reign to channel his inner cocaine Elvis and it's a hoot to watch. Overly ambitious and a little to drawn-out towards the end, but necessary viewing for any Nicolas Cage fan.
Bad Lieutenant:Port of Call - New Orleans (2009): The most unhinged Cage has been on screen w/o being unwatchable (re: Christopher Coppola's 'Deadfall'). He is spectacular. He plays a New Orleans detective, lurching and grimacing from chronic back pain and self medicating said pain with a motley medley of illicit drugs. Werner Herzog deserves a standing ovation for bringing Nicolas out of retirement. He pilots Cage into a bizarre downward spiral as he works a drug/homicide case, complete with violent interrogations of old women (ripping out their breathing tubes) and crack-induced visions of a man's soul dancing over his own dead body. Not everybody will love it, particularly viewers expecting something cut from the same cloth as the Ferrera original, but for Cage/Herzog fans it will not disappoint.
Winner: Bad Lieutenant: POCNW. My love for Lynch runs deep and Sailor Ripley is one of my favourite characters to grace the big-screen – so props to Wild at Heart. But Cage's performance as Terrence Mcdonagh is an unstoppable force. It doesn't hurt that he's got the inimitable Werner Herzog in his corner, either. Latter round TKO in favour of Mcdonagh, who continues to throw punches at Ripley's “soul” after the referee calls the fight.
Leaving Las Vegas vs. Adaptation
Leaving Las Vegas (1995): The most harrowing performance of Cage's career hands-down. Nicolas plays a Hollywood screen-writer who turns to alcohol once his wife and child leave him. Cage's filmography contains other roles where Cage's manic behaviour is a product of substance abuse, but only in LLV do we see the catastrophic effects on the mind and body so clearly and without humour. He doesn't simply drink, but drowns himself in alcohol. The only scenes where he isn't throwing one back are ones where he is in withdrawal, shaking and sweating uncontrollably while searching for another drink. At the heart of the story is an unlikely romance between drunk and whore. A film that is unsettling in it's honesty and un-flinching look at people at their ropes end. With a great soundtrack and expert direction by Mike Figgis, fans of recent hard-done by dramas such as The Wrestler or Crazy Heart should take note, but be weary that this film is one to be endured, not to be enjoyed.
Adaptation (2002): After re-watching this film while writing the 'Cage Match', Nicolas Cage's performance as Charlie/Donald Kaufman might be the most impressive of his career. This film marks an end to a 7 year drought of acclaimed dramatic roles, during which Cage's alter ego Nic ascended to box office dominance. Adaptation has the elements of a vintage Nicolas role, including the sweating, twitching and nervousness, but he is no longer exploding out of the screen with violent, drug infused outbursts. Whether it's his sobriety, older age, withering hairline or simply the phenomenal script penned by Kaufman – Cage creates an absorbing portrait of a mid-life crisis. The persona he's developed in the aforementioned films is humbled and embarrassed in Adaptation. As a result his character is more accessible here than in the aforementioned films; in large part due to the voice-over narration that saturates the film, where director Spike Jonz gives the audience a direct line to Kaufman's thoughts. Inventive story telling and a fantastic ensemble cast that revolves around Cage's affecting performance combine for an outstanding example of modern film making.
Winner: Adaptation. A man who is drinking himself to death v. an overweight nervous and depressed writer. Not exactly the stuff of Pay-Per-View and Las Vegas, but a very close fight nevertheless. A split decision is awarded with both contestants ailing in their respective corners, both sweating and being ill, but for different reasons. The deciding vote is awarded to...Adaptation. Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper celebrate, while Elizabeth Shue is nowhere to be found. But seriously, Adaptation gets the nod here for inventive storytelling and a performance by Cage that demands multiple viewings to truly appreciate. Leaving Las Vegas won Cage an Oscar, but Adaptation is the more important film.
Next v. National Treasure
Next (2007): Stars Nic as a Las Vegas magician that can see a few minutes into the future. He is kidnapped by the FBI to help them with a significant terrorist attack they believe will strike New York City. Next is perhaps the best litmus test for whether or not someone can enjoy a Nic Cage action movie, in most part because it is so ridiculous and revelling in B-movie-dom. It exemplifies the outlandish plots, bizarre and hammy love interests, and disturbing receding hairlines that, if enjoyed, can make for very entertaining results.
National Treasure (2004): A G-rated archeological adventure with Nic Cage playing Indiana Jones' screwed up brother. This is the third Jerry Bruckheimer film Cage has starred in, but this one marks the first where both have worked under Disney's jurisdiction. Bruckheimer seems to have sold his already flawed soul to the Mickey Mouse empire- so I'm thankful that Cage only cashes in his Disney cheque every few years. This film is perfect for quasi-adults who are either babysitting or indulging in a hungover wake-and-bake session. The target audience is definitely children, so keep that in mind before popping it in after Leaving Las Vegas during a Cage marathon.
Winner: Next. Next gets the nod here, because there's no way a Disney film could ever win a real Cage Match!
Bankok Dangerous v. Con Air
Bankok Dangerous (2008): Universally derided by critics and viewers, who recommended the 1999 original or just about anything else rather than BD, I sat down and was surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie. It is a stylish, neon-at-night, motorcycles and weapons affair. The kill-scenes are inventive and it doesn't linger around past its welcome, clocking in at under 100 minutes. There is definitely a sense that there is some sort of compromise by the Hong Kong directors, yielding to Hollywood writing and acting(!). But even the Hollywood overtones are the stuff of B-movie lore, particularly the token romance between Cage and a local pharmacy girl. He gets hurt while out on a 'hit' and therefore has to go to the pharmacy in order to get patched up. The young woman is (rightfully so) afraid yet intrigued by this strange white man and helps him out as best she can. Out of the blue, there is a scene where Cage is standing in the street, laying into her with a desperate stare-down and a few seconds later they are in each others arms trading wet kisses. Simply put, a very abrupt and most unlikely romance. All in all more proof that Cage is, yet again, the strangest action star to ever grace the screen.
Con Air (1997): This is the second in a string of films during the mid-nineties of big-budget, box-office smashes that have become the bed-rock on which Nic Cage has built his latter-career reputation as B-movie action guy. The Rock, fresh of the heels of Leaving Las Vegas, was the first of these films and was a bombastic production and Cage found himself between the towering presences of Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay, and Sean Connery. It is an A-list action/thriller and a little to obvious, so it has been omitted from this list. Con-Air, made the following year, is a true Nic Cage vehicle. It proves the subject matter of The Rock to be no fluke and that Nicholas Cage, the witty manic actor, is only to be manifested once in a blue moon from now on. It features another ensemble cast (including a seriously disturbing Steve Buscemi, who makes you forget your supposed to be watching a stupid testosterone blitz), but the movie revolves around Cage's character, and he owns the movie. This one marks the rough blue-print for the character he is to play in the majority of the B-movies to come; a good blue-collar guy, whose been ensnared in a bad situation due to a mistake or error in judgement and now has to pay a sacrifice and/or fight for redemption. Pretty standard tough guy plot, but (too risk repetition) Cage makes you give his character a double-take; is he just another cardboard cut out that is stringed through huge explosions and professions of love, or is there something else there? I'm not sure there is, or even whether this distraction registers with others, but his strange presence on screen is certainly one of a kind.
Winner: Bangkok Dangerous. BD is the winner due to the fact that it doesn't take itself as seriously as Con-Air. I feel like it might be hard to nail the magic of B-movies with John Malkovich's prancing, i mean acting, in a starring role, most likely halting the shooting in order to have asides with the director about the true 'motivations' of his character, Cryus 'The Virus' Grisson.
Knowing v. Face/Off
Face/Off (1997): Cage teams up with Director John Woo and John Travolta to make one of the quintessential Hollywood action movies of the 90's. In the back of my mind I know Chow Yun Phat and Tony Leung could pull this one off better in the streets of Hong Kong, but then of course, there would be no Nic Cage. Thankfully, John Woo's peculiar gift of mixing hyper-melodrama and endless bullets, all set in symbolic/religious backdrops is not lost in his emigration to Hollywood – there is even a duel between Cage and Travolta in and around a church a la 'The Killers'. Face/Off takes the standard Hong Kong crime film premise of pitting a cop and a criminal against each other, but reversing the roles. Usually this is done by each of the main players being a double agent; the criminal is working from within the police force and the cop is deep undercover in the higher ranks of a crime syndicate, or some variation of this predicament. The most famous example being the 'Infernal Affairs' trilogy. As this is a somewhat complex story to tell, American audiences have been spared any head scratching in Face/Off, as the cop and the criminal not only switch roles, but switch faces and their entire physical appearance to in essence become their rival. Without the baggage of actual story telling, the movie becomes a duel of wit and charisma between Cage and Travolta. It's almost a shame that Cage only gets to play the severely whacked bad guy Castor Troy for the opening 20 mins of the film before he has to play the conservative cop Sean Archer for the rest of the film – but on second thought I don't think I could swallow Travolta hamming it up as a wronged-good guy for an hour and a half. Travolta does his bloated prancing and squeaking as power-drunk bad cop thing and it's at the very least charming (and thankfully not 'Michael' charming). Cage has to play it conservative, and there are only a few moments where his manic energy is on display. A fun and, although dumbed down, interesting action movie that likely has more wide-spread appeal than the other Nic Cage movies on this list.
Knowing (2009): Equipped with one of the most unbelievable plot lines this side of Next, Knowing is a strange cult gem, blessed with spectacular special effects and disturbing religious imagery. Cage plays a math/science teacher who's son brings home a 50 year old piece of paper carefully filled with numbers, a document he received from a time capsule opened up at his school. Upon investigation, Cage figures out that the numbers a creepy little girl (disaster-damus) wrote on a piece of foolscap correspond with the dates and locations of all the major world disasters that happened after the creepy little girl wrote them out. The scariest discovery is that the list stops in 2009, which Cage extrapolates into meaning not that she had simply ran out of room, but that there is one final judgement day, i.e. the end of the world is nigh. Thus, Cage tries to uncover what the disaster will be, how to avoid it, etc. Highlights include the riveting plane crash scene, where Cage gets out of his car and races straight for the crash for no apparent reason and almost runs into a screaming flaming man (as in on fire, not flamboyant). Cage is taken a back at the apparent rudeness of this man, dusts of his coat and exclaims 'C'mon!', in his classic drawl. Very strange. The ending also needs to be acknowledged – Cage is proven correct in his prediction that the world will end in 2009, but is proven incorrect in his assumption that the human race will be eradicated. Aliens are at the root cause, and Cage manages somehow to barter with them and strike a deal where they pluck a boy and a girl from each of Earth's about-to-expire 'cultures' in a strange glowing ball and dump the mini adam and eves on a positively thriving planet that resembles Eden. Seriously. Needs to be seen to be believed (or more accurately known).
Winner: Knowing. In almost any other context Face/Off would get the nod since it is a superior film. But this is a Cage match, and therefore I think a lean desperate world-saving professor beats down on a magnetic boot wearing cop who's got Travolta constantly tittering in his ear. And that Alien/Eden ending has to be worth something.
Ghost Rider v. Snake Eyes
Ghost Rider (2007): Joe Neumaier from the New York Daily News has come to the 'sad realization' that, “this once-vibrant and witty actor (Cage) is completely controlled now by his inner teenager”. No more is this true than in Ghost Rider. A long time comic book fan (he has tried several times to play Superman in a feature), Cage lets his inner-nerd get the worst of him in his role as the flaming skeleton on a motorcycle. Apparently the terrible script (which includes lots of pointing and gestures instead of words, and when the players do speak it's in monosyllabic deadpans like 'You...Guilty' and so forth), and cheesy special effects weren't enough to deter Nic from signing on. Nearly unwatchable from the very start, it falls in the classic shitty comic-book movie trap by spending three quarters of an hour doing a boring origin story that I won't bother to summarize. There are a few charming moments Cage pulls out of his ass, such as eating martini glasses full of candy beans and finding chimpanzees doing kung-fu unbearably funny, but these are few and far between, and really not that great anyways. I squirmed and shielded my eyes for an hour waiting for a single glimpse of the actual 'ghost rider' – and about five minutes after that I had to shut it off. For me it's Cage's career low and I can only recommend a sober viewing of the movie as a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Snake Eyes (1998): An engaging, creative little hitchcockian thriller that has Cage playing a corrupt Atlantic City cop caught in the midst of an assassination of a high ranking government official during a heavy-weight boxing match. It looks great, with lots of colour and spectacular long takes that follow Cage breathlessly pacing around the arena greeting people, talking on the phone, taking and making bets, all the while grinning and fist pumping and shouting. The first forty-five minutes are quite brilliant and sets up an intriguing murder-mystery. From there the film spins its tires a little bit and takes far too long to end, but overall is an oft-overlooked thriller by the equally overlooked Brian De Palma.
Winner: Snake Eyes because even Industrial Symphony No. 1 is easier to sit through than Ghost Rider. Because Snake Eyes isn't like watching a huge bag of manure for forty five minutes only to be lit on fire and become too nauseating.
Note: Industrial Symphony No. 1 is a David Lynch industrial ballet/musical, that has Cage and Laura Dern reprising their roles from Wild at Heart as a sort of prelude to the totally bizarre broadway on acid production that follows.
Moonstruck v. Adaptation
Winner: Adaptation. By all accounts, the young, virile and muscular Ronny Cammareri should truly pummel the fictional Kaufman Bros. But Ronny gets confused and distracted by the incessant verbal interplay and bickering by the Kaufmans. Ronny is sucker punched simultaneously in the gut and kidney in the fifth round and is convinced that staying down past the count is a good idea. Adaptation out-wits the polished Hollywood comedy while what's supposed to be Cher these days fails to recall what Moonstruck is in a garbled vox-box voice.
Raising Arizona v. Bad Lieutenant: POCNW
Winner: Raising Arizona. Probably one of the tightest and hard fought bouts in this entire round-robin. The veteran comedy wins out against the fresh-off-the-reels crime thriller with a combination of gut-wrenching laughter fits and the seasoned swagger of a champion. My gut tells me that if a re-match is scheduled for 2020 we may have a different outcome, depending on how well Herzog's modern masterpiece ages.
Next v. Snake Eyes
Winner: Next – Snake Eyes is savvy film making, but Next is one of the pinnacles of the Nic era, the second coming of Cage. Rick Santoro (of Snake Eyes) is crafty in the ring, but as Cris Johnson can see everything a few minutes ahead of time, Mr. Santoro has no chance.
Bangkok Dangerous v. Knowing
Winner: Bangkok Dangerous. It's a close second round battle, but BD has more cajones. The vanilla assassin plugs the tweed prophet.
Raising Arizona v. Adaptation
Winner: Raising Arizona.
Adaptation did well to make it so far, but is simply outmatched by the charisma and staying power of Raising Arizona. Making a comedy that balances slapstick and a script that gets the most out of its actors is a tall task. Even more impressive and rare is the fact that Raising Arizona makes people laugh hard twenty years down the road. A perfect film example of its genre and that's what you ask for in a champion.
Bangkok Dangerous v. Next
Winner: Bangkok Dangerous
This is a worthy Nic Cage title fight. Evenly matched in terms of B-movie plot lines, action, and unlikely love-interests. Both performances by Cage are strangely wooden, his eyes like Liz Taylor in A mirror Crack'd. But when it comes down to it BD is the more enjoyable movie – it revels in it's artificial, glitzy Bangkok while Next maybe tries a bit too hard to be serious in it's handling of terrorists. In other words, Julianne Moore is the difference between the champion and the contender.
Raising Arizona v. Bangkok Dangerous
Draw: First off, let's acknowledge that this fight is between two films who draw their greatness from two vastly different systems of thought or rubrics. It's like having a champion from both the heavy-weight and light-weight face/off against each other; both have earned the right to be the best of their class and have completely different skill sets. What makes Raising Arizona great (terrific writing and manic comedy gold) isn't what makes Bangkok Dangerous great (strange hair styles, campy make-out sessions and guns). Standard film criticism would give Raising Arizona the win hands-down, but in the Cage a different rule of thumb is used. The pairing of these two films awards us a perfect distillation of what makes Nicolas/Nic Cage such an enigma in film history. Raising Arizona has Nicolas burning up in the fire of his youth, an off-balance but magnetic comedy star. 20 years later the same, but yet completely different actor stars in BD, with an almost vacant look on his withered face, dashing around a foreign city and raining down bullets and stiff kung-fu on bad guys. I find it hard to attribute the (non-physical) changes in Cage to simply a case of growing older – as his role choices seem to have gotten progressively more immature. And so it does look like Cage has been consumed by his “inner-teenager”. But then every 2-3 years, Nicolas Cage comes out of retirement to derail that thesis to some extent and makes a Bad Lieutenant or Adaptation. He is one of the more prolific actors of the last 30 years but is far from one-note (ex: George Clooney). In conclusion, although a cop-out in sporting mythology, this final bout is a tie. One can't stand above the other. Only when they stand side by side do they illustrate the genius/disgrace complex of Mr. Cage.
Bonus Fun: http://niccageaseveryone.blogspot.com/