The 2010s have not been an easy time for Nicolas Cage, preeminent cultural icon and reigning king of esoteric movie choices. The Academy Award-winning former box office champ has spent much of the decade churning out an endless series of action movies both regrettable and forgettable, most of which go direct to video or receive token theatrical releases. Things seem to be looking up for him as of late, however. He can currently be heard as the voice of Superman in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies , (Certified Fresh at 90%), and this week he appears in the horror thriller Mandy (Certified Fresh at 98%), which has earned near universal praise on the film festival circuit.
In other words, it’s the perfect time to single out a whole slew of Cage cult oddities that may not be as well known as The Wicker Man, Adaptation, Wild at Heart, or Face/Off, but are definitely worth checking out, particularly if you don’t mind films of varying quality.
Nicolas Cage was perhaps the only hungry, talented young actor of the day who did not appear in 1983’s The Outsiders, despite being the nephew of the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. He scored a nifty consolation prize, however, in the role of Smokey, a distractingly shaggy member of Matt Dillon’s crew, in the film’s companion piece, Rumble Fish, which was shot back-to-back with The Outsiders with the same crew and source material from the same author, young-adult lit goddess S.E. Hinton.
It seems fitting that Cage would end up in the artier and more agreeably demented of the two projects, a film noir-leaning black-and-white movie for teenagers that finds Cage holding his own against a cast that includes heavyweights like Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, Mickey Rourke at the height of his androgynous beauty and magnetism, and Tom Waits. Rumble Fish proved that even at the very beginning of his career, there was a whole lot more to Cage than just being related to a legendary filmmaker.
When it comes to fusing the belligerent aggression of the archetypal 1980s businessman with pure, monstrous old-school evil of the Dracula/Wolfman variety, Patrick Bateman of American Psycho could learn a thing or two from the lunatic Cage played in 1989’s Vampire’s Kiss.
In this pitch-black horror comedy, a belligerent, narcissistic literary agent played by Cage gets bitten by a mysterious stranger during a one-night stand and becomes convinced he’s a vampire. Vampire’s Kiss soars as a demented ’80s riff on George Romero’s Martin, with the squirmy vulnerability and aching sadness of Martin‘s fake vampire replaced by the deranged narcissism of a dude who was a monster and a threat to everyone around him even before he got bit. It also brought us a couple of the finest Nic Cage freakouts ever and inspired a well-known meme.
As Wild at Heart indelibly illustrated, the young Nicolas Cage could be a scorchingly sexy actor. But he’s the hilarious antithesis of that as a sexual adventurer whose goatee, soul patch, and mustache combo makes him look like he’s perpetually wearing a Guy Fawkes mask in the wonderfully warped, direct-to-video 1991 “erotic” thriller Zandalee.
Cage’s sex maniac shamelessly pursues the titular unsatisfied wife of his impotent best friend Judge Reinhold with rowdy come-ons like, “I wanna shake you naked and eat you alive, Zandalee.” Who could resist a line like that? Yes, Zandalee is perversely unsexy, but it is, scandalously and unintentionally, a laugh riot.
Cage ably plays a film noir archetype — the drifter lured into a world of sin and seduction, murder and greed — opposite J.T Walsh, Dennis Hopper, and femme fatale Lara Flynn Boyle in John Dahl’s terrific, darkly funny 1993 neo-noir Red Rock West. This overachieving little thriller was slated for a direct-to-video/cable burial before a California theater owner helped finagle a richly merited, albeit modest, theatrical release. But Red Rock West wasn’t just worthy of a theatrical release: it was one of the best films of the year it was released, and today it occupies a place of pride in the pantheon of great latter-day film noirs alongside other Dahl triumphs like Kill Me Again and The Last Seduction.
After Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader continued their exploration of driven, intense protagonists facing down bleak personal personal reckonings with Bringing Out the Dead, their electric adaptation of Joe Connelly’s novel about a depressed paramedic and the death-haunted, surrealistic world he inhabits. Cage’s big, soulful eyes powerfully express his character’s bottomless sadness and aching longing for tenderness and connection in a world gone mad.
Director Gore Verbinski took a break from directing mega-budgeted spectacles like the Pirates of the Caribbean with 2005’s The Weather Man, a deftly handled character study about a vain, narcissistic Chicago weatherman (Cage) with complicated relationships with his father (Michael Caine) and his family. It’s an unexpectedly small-scale, life-sized movie from a director and a star used to splashier, more flamboyant fare. Cage doesn’t play relatively normal men for understandable reasons (he’s insane and over the top, in the best possible sense), but he’s quite good at it, and The Weather Man is a low-key charmer.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 project Grindhouse represented an audacious attempt to recreate the mood, vibe, and stoned, surreal experience of catching a double feature in an impressively disgusting drive-in theater with a gallon of moonshine and a few jazz cigarettes sometime in the 1970s.
To make the evening a full-on experience/freak out, Tarantino’s Death Proof and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror were augmented by fake trailers from simpatico, sleaze-loving souls like like Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, and Rob Zombie, the latter of whom contributed Werewolf Woman of the SS, a hairy, cheeky, supernatural spin on the sex- and violence-saturated Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. The faux trailer concludes by promising a boffo cast of B-movie favorites like Shari Moon Zombie (no points for guessing who her husband is), Udo Kier, Sybil Danning, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer‘s Tom Towles, Bill Moseley, and, of course, Nicolas Cage as a deranged Dr. Fu Manchu.
Granted, Werewolf Woman of the SS isn’t an actual movie, but Cage is so beloved among trash culture aficionados that his mere appearance in Grindhouse prompted cheers and howls of laughter. It’s tempting to imagine how a feature-length version of the film promised in Zombie’s trailer might look and feel, but it’s doubtful it could have lived up to audience expectations.
Some projects become huge cult movies before a single frame is even shot. That’s true of 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, whose status as a cult classic was clinched the moment beloved filmmaker Werner Herzog signed on to direct Nicolas Cage in a New Orleans-set reboot/reimagining/riff on Abel Ferrara’s iconic 1992 independent cult classic Bad Lieutenant.
Cage and Herzog amplify each other’s madness in this mind-bending dark comedy about a cackling, coke-snorting, lucky crack pipe-toting madman who is a crime-fighter in dirty, lawless New Orleans, an astonishingly prolific criminal, and an all-around degenerate. Only a lunatic would be audacious enough to follow in the footsteps of Harvey Keitel at his most punishingly intense and fearless. Thankfully, Cage is just such a lunatic, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans not only matches the stoned brilliance of Ferrara’s rightly revered original, at times it surpasses it.
Cage scored a surprise hit with Alex Proyas’ demented 2009 science-fiction mind-blower Knowing. The movie begins as a relatively straightforward conspiracy theory about a widowed professor (Cage) who discovers that a time capsule from 1959 contains numbers relating to a series of future calamities, including September 11th. Knowing gets bolder and more audacious as it goes along, leading to an unforgettable ending that takes the movie’s brazenly loopy premise to its surrealistic extreme in a manner at once biblical and apocalyptic.
Chloë Grace Moretz got most of the acclaim and the attention, creepy and otherwise, for her star-making turn as gleefully profane 11-year-old killing machine Hit Girl in Matthew Vaughn’s action comedy, a nasty, misanthropic adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s comic book Kick Ass, about everyday weirdos who decide to become real-world superheroes.
But Cage played just as big a role in the film’s creative success as the appropriately named Big Daddy, a good cop who turns his daughter into a fearsome weapon of vengeance against a mob boss who has framed him. In Kick Ass, Cage’s justice-seeking patriarch is, paradoxically, the moral center and the trembling, beating heart and soul of a fundamentally amoral movie that fatally lacks any heart or soul otherwise.
All that needs to be said about Drive Angry (other than, you know, it’s a 3D Nicolas Cage movie called Drive Angry), is that at one point, Cage’s character has sex, swigs whiskey straight from the bottle, and engages in a gunfight – all at the same time! That, friends, is multitasking.
Cage plays a tough guy too badass even for Hell, so he steals the Devil’s own gun and sets out to prevent his granddaughter from from being sacrificed by a Satanic cult. With a premise and a star that nuts you don’t need 3D, but then again, Cage’s aesthetic has always been about crazy excess, so why not bring the lurid B-movie thrills in all three dimensions?
Thanks in no small part to the films on this list, Nicolas Cage reigns as the king of movies that are so bad they’re good. But every once in a while the stars align perfectly, and the eccentric trash movie icon will find himself in a movie that’s just plain good.
That’s 2014’s Joe, a riveting coming-of-age drama from David Gordon Green that casts Cage in the challenging and juicy title role of a grizzled, troubled, and extremely hairy alcoholic who becomes the unlikely father figure to a young boy played by Tye Sheridan. The film serves as a much needed reminder that, in the right role and the right film, Cage can be a great actor, not just an irresistibly big personality.
Cage’s career hit yet another nadir when he was cast as a pilot who learns a little something about the perils of eschewing a Godly path in 2014’s Left Behind, the feature film adaptation of the Rapture-themed series of best-selling conspiracy novels that were previously adapted into a trilogy of motion picture vehicles for Kirk Cameron.
Despite an Oscar winner in a lead role, 2014’s Left Behind is surprisingly much more modest than the Kirk Cameron movie. Instead of a globe-trotting adventure, it’s essentially the film equivalent of what is known in television as a “bottle episode,” which takes place primarily in a self-contained single location. The main action in Left Behind is limited to a wonderfully stagy airplane set where the crew and passengers of a flight slowly but surely piece together the nature of their loved ones’ not-so-mysterious disappearances (spoiler: it’s God), with unintentionally hilarious results.
Left Behind had two core audiences: Christians psyched to see an actor of Cage’s caliber in Godly entertainment, and secular smart-asses excited about an opportunity to laugh at Cage’s expense. Left Behind‘s wonderfully hokey storytelling and over-the-top proselytizing should have satisfed both groups, but, like so many of Cage’s films these days, it flopped, and a planned trilogy was nixed. That means, at least in this instance, Kirk Cameron actually succeeded where Nicolas Cage failed.
The pairing of Cage and beloved cult weirdos Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor (Crank, Crank: High Volume) on Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, a sequel about a flaming motorcyclist from Hell, promised a crazy abundance of kitschy thrills and delivered almost nothing.
Cage fared much better when he re-teamed with Taylor alone on the demented 2017 horror comedy Mom and Dad. The film cast Cage and Selma Blair as quintessentially corny parents whose long-buried resentment over sacrificing their own needs and happiness for the sake of their children comes to a raging, psychotic, murderous boil when a meteor inspires otherwise sane mothers and fathers to murder their own children for a 24-hour span. It’s a role perfectly suited for Cage’s late-period combination of cornball dad dorkiness and unrelenting, violent intensity.
Cage was singularly compelling as an angry, crazy young man. He’s similarly magnetic in the bonkers dad roles he’s been playing as of late, and he’s sure to make for a fascinatingly warped granddad, as long as he can find roles deserving of his singular genius and mad-dog charisma. Considering Cage’s inscrutable taste in material, though, there’s no telling what we’ll actually get, and that also feels perfectly appropriate.
Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin