Photo: Noam Galai (Getty)
Nicolas Cage is Hollywood’s biggest conundrum. Right out of the gate, he proved himself as an impeccable actor who brought a tantalizing unpredictability to his roles. He was a leading man, but like none we had seen before. With each performance he gave us, we wanted to see what came next. What he eventually did was puzzling. He took an over-the-top acting style that served him well in previous contexts to a disquieting new level, playing bad roles in bad movies that he delivered with laughable gusto. Fans noticed. Hollywood noticed. The Internet noticed, too, and made him and his film transgressions into the stuff of legend. But the underlying argument remains: How did he go from so good to so bad? Sadly, we may never solve that question, so let’s instead recall his all-time best and worst films.
No. 5 – Amos & Andrew (1993)
Sign of the Apocalypse is not the name of a Nicolas Cage movie, but some might see it as a better title for this early ’90s comedy misfire. If not necessarily a warning that the end was near, this was perhaps the first hint that despite a string of box office triumphs and critical acclamations, The Cage was capable of some truly awful stuff. First on our list of the worst of his myriad of film atrocities, Amos and Andrew tried to be both funny and a commentary on racial issues, but was neither. While Cage and fellow thespian Samuel L. Jackson lent there big names to shining a cinematic light on the black-and-white issues of the day, they instead wound up making one huge colorless mess.
No. 4 – Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)
If you’ve ever wondered what movies they show in Hell, it is very possible we have one answer for you. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is exactly the kind of torture Satan would screen for his subjects. And if we discovered that The Cage actually presided over the Q&A afterwards, it wouldn’t surprise us at all. He can do anything, including following up the decidedly abysmal Ghost Rider with this even more abysmal sequel. The fact is that no one has given the world a better motorcycle-riding fugitive from the Underworld than singer Meatloaf, and no one ever will.
No. 3 – Bangkok Dangerous (2008)
One location + one adjective = the new Nicolas Cage normal. In other words, Oscar-winning actor slums in lethargic crap. In Bangkok Dangerous, he’s a hotshot hit man who travels to Asia to kill a bunch of people before he takes on a protege and a conscience. The pace is slow, the action is hackneyed and the filmmakers (who also directed the superior yet still mediocre original) double down on The Cage’s dismal dialogue with inane voiceover narration. Where the original’s lead is a deaf-mute assassin, that innovative spin gets fully “Caged” in the remake and we’re forced to hear him utter lines. The mute angle is instead transferred to the love interest, who watches him murder people yet still can’t resist him in the end. However, you should definitely resist Bangkok Dangerous altogether. Your senses, including smell, taste and even touch somehow, will thank you for it.
No. 2 – Knowing (2009)
If Amos & Andrew was a sign of the apocalypse, Knowing could be seen as the event itself. There is no denying that even though he’ll sneak in an impressive performance here and there, The Cage’s more recent film choices have definitely branded him a B-movie queen. Sometimes predicting the end of the world can be barrels of fun on a movie screen. Knowing is a good reason to throw Milk Duds at it. Spooky time capsules, mysterious numbers and intervening space aliens compete to outdo Cage himself on the ridiculous scale. Who wins? Who cares? As we watch the world burn down to the ground, we almost envy the fictional victims who no longer have to carry around the memory of this terrible movie in their heads ever again.
No. 1 – The Wicker Man (2006)
Some of the most revered quotes in cinema history include the likes of “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti” or “May the Force be with you.” The Wicker Man contains two of The Cage’s best lines as well, but for all the wrong reasons. Here, he plays a police officer searching for his young daughter on a strange Pacific Coast island populated by a religious enclave that’s run by women and suffering a severe honey shortage. A remake of a 1973 horror film (we featured their masks in a recent article of our own), this is an embarrassment for everyone involved, thanks to its unintentional hilarity and jaw-dropping awfulness. Easily his worst movie, it has achieved cult status as an atrocity in terms of both the craft of filmmaking and acting alike. The Cage is off the chain here, but somehow managed to get us inexplicably hooked with his cringeworthy delivery of lines such as “How’d it get burned!?” and “No, not the bees! Not the bees!”
No. 5 – Wild at Heart (1990)
While The Cage’s manic onscreen energy has brought the term “punchline” into any serious discussion about his body of work, in 1990 it served him brilliantly in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. A road movie driven by Lynch’s bizarre style, Cage was a more than enthusiastic co-conspirator for this, well, wild cinematic ride. Though his future unhinged performances would give critics and fans fodder for ridicule and derision, here, dressed in a sweet snakeskin jacket, craziness was the context and Cage shined. Lynch is known for the blurred, distorted worlds he creates on film and television, and in Wild at Heart, Cage was electric as that world’s beacon.
No. 4 – Face/Off (1997)
It was in the mid-2000s when The Cage started to become a laughable parody of himself with his outlandish acting. But like Wild at Heart, his outrageousness in 1997’s Face/Off was exactly what the role needed and the main reason why his performance was given such high praise. He plays a brilliant, violent criminal mastermind being dogged by FBI agent John Travolta who is willing to do anything to put an end to his evil deeds. That includes undergoing of temporary transplant of Cage’s face to infiltrate his inner circle. What could go wrong? Well, Cage in turn steals Travolta’s face and sparks fly. These two venerable actors give this action thriller all they’ve got to the audiences’ benefit, but Cage pushes it to the very limit with unrestrained antics that definitely triumph in the end.
No. 3 – Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
The Cage’s mania is here in Leaving Las Vegas, but it is suppressed underneath a quiet performance which makes it one of his most nuanced. Here he plays a failed screenwriter, so fed up with what’s become of his personal and professional life that he gives it all up and heads to Vegas to drink himself to death. An unexpected relationship with a troubled prostitute complicates what seemed like an easy decision. Cage’s great acting is on full display here, making his detour into overacting in later bombs so notable. Toned down, with tension boiling beneath, his portrayal not only earned him the respect of an already devoted audience, but a Best Actor Oscar as well.
No. 2 – Adaptation (2002)
In most of the films listed in the “worst” category, one Nicolas Cage was too much. But as we’ve switched over to his best performances, Adaptation proves that two Cages can leave us wanting more. The film has The Cage playing twin brothers, Charlie and Donald Kaufman, who try to put their sibling rivalry on hold to adapt a screenplay together. Mind-bending director Spike Jonze certainly picked the right lead actor to bend minds in this acclaimed film. Cage usually brings enough angst and frenzy to a project for not one but two roles, and in Adaptation, this has never been more apparent.
No. 1 – Raising Arizona (1987)
The Coen Brothers are two of the greatest living filmmakers working today, and their sharp, dark dramedies continually manage to affect and surprise us. Their second film Raising Arizona also boasts Nicolas Cage’s best performance ever. In it, he plays a lovable loser ex-con whose desire to put his criminal past behind him and start a family with his infertile wife, who is a former cop, leads them to become kidnappers. Lovable losers are a dime a dozen on the big screen, but Cage has tapped into something revelatory here, filling this sweet, flawed man with an unrivaled grandeur and grace. His character might be a simple dimwit, but the emotions and identification Cage wields as this quiet protagonist is truly beyond genius.