In case that subtle author picture, or my Twitter profile photo didn’t alert you to this, I have an affection for Nicolas Cage. Roger Ebert once said that he is a ‘…good actor in good movies and an almost indispensable actor in bad ones,’ and I think that about sums him up. But despite my love of seeing him in bad or silly movies (Face/Off is a dumb movie, but it is also an entirely successful and extremely competent action movie, not so much Ghost Rider) I have to continually inform people that in the right part or with the right director, he is a damned fine actor. And so, with a lull in movie releases while I try to find The Raid 2 and avoid Heaven Is For Real and A Haunted House 2 like the plague, I thought I’d draw attention to some of his under appreciated good performances.
Note: Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona have been excluded from this list, as everyone knows they’re good.
I’ve referenced Being John Malkovich as one of my favorite movies of all time on a couple occasions, even in my short time on this site, but almost equally brilliant is writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze’s follow up work. The story goes that Kaufman was hired to write an adaption of Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief. Upon actually starting to write the script, he was hit with writer’s block due to the fact that the book…well doesn’t have a plot. After working on it for a while, he decided to write a script about his increasingly bizarre attempts to adapt the book.
The movie, as you can imagine, is a strange animal. Kaufman invents a fake twin for himself (both twins played by Cage) and the screenplay is credited to both Charlie Kaufman and the fake twin, which wound up being one of the few times (outside the Coen brothers crediting their editing to Roderick Jayne to get around credit regulations) that a fake person was nominated for an Oscar. The movie gradually gets more and more metatextual until you realize that the reason the third act plays more like a generic thriller than the first and second is because David Kaufman (portrayed as a cliché addicted hack from the word go) has been allowed to assist in writing the screenplay. It’s weird, is what I’m saying.
But I went into this article with the impetus to discuss Mr. Cage and he is in rare form in this film. His performance is restrained and understated in both roles, but he also manages to find some distinct elements to distinguish Charlie and Donald, from Charlie’s tortured genius and Donald’s simple, if stupid, happiness. Multiple scenes require him to act across from himself with only subtle differences in the performances to differentiate which twin is which and he’s fantastic at it. The film as a whole might be one of the finest films on the subject of writer’s block, and a lot of it is down to Cage to sell it and believe it or not, he does it. It’s always nice to see a veteran scenery chewer do subtle understated performances. And speaking of which…
Lord of War
Director Andrew Niccol is a very…hit or miss filmmaker. Gattaca is rightly considered a classic and In Time is actually pretty good, but Simone was a complete mess and The Host was…well it was based on a book by the woman who wrote Twilight, how do you think it was? Still, he also wrote The Truman Show and The Terminal, so he’s obviously talented. And by far his most underrated film, in my opinion is Lord of War.
The setup could almost be considered a dark parody of the Goodfellas plot that every up and coming director and their dog tries to make a movie out of. Yuri Orlov is a poor Ukrainian immigrant living in New York City who, after a brief run in with local mobsters, decides to get into the gun running profession. From that setup, and the Goodfellas reference above, I’m pretty sure you can suss out most of the movie, so I won’t go beyond that. What sets it apart, aside from Cage’s good performance, is how extremely blunt and cynical the movie is.
And really, I can overstate how blunt this movie is. The opening credits are played over a montage depicting a bullet’s journey from the factory to an African child soldier’s skull, set to For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield and it only goes from there. I found this, combined with the ‘everybody sucks’ cynicism that has Ian Holm as a rival gun runner selling to two sides of a conflict or the son of an African warlord asking for “The gun of Rambo,” rather refreshing. And Cage is right at the center of it, detached and cynical, and tasked with carrying much of the story through his deadpan delivery and voice over. I’m not going to say it’s as memorable as his performance in Adaptation, or even his much more over the top performances in much worse movies, but it fits very well into the movie. No, if you want a scenery chewing performance in service of a great movie, you need…
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
This one was directed by legendary German director Werner Herzog, and the first thing you need to know about Herzog is that he is a goddman genius who loves telling really really depressing stories. He’s notable for having been working since the late 60s and having a really good sense of humor about his public persona (showing up on both American Dad and The Boondocks to do parodies of it). He’s also got a talent for directing possibly crazy actors, having spent time in the 70s and 80s working with famously unhinged actor Klaus Kinski (supposedly at one point threatening to murder him if he didn’t return to the set while filming Fitzcarraldo). So if anyone can direct Nicolas Cage’s insanity into service of something better, it’s Herzog.
This is probably one of the hardest to watch movies in Cage’s career, especially if you’re a fan of his over the top style of performance. Here it’s turned into something dark, as his character is an unhinged drug addict, who has no qualms about threatening a wheelchair bound woman with violence or stealing drugs from barely legal girls and borderline assaulting them. He’s a sick sad bastard, given license by his status as a police officer to force his rapid self destruction on other people, fully aware that the time limit on people catching on to how messed up he is is almost up.
There is some solid supporting work from the likes of Brad Dourif, Val Kilmer and even Xzibit, and a great screenplay by William Finkelstein, but really this is a two man show, Cage and Herzog. Herzog is skilled enough at directing actors to know how to use Cage’s insanity to the right ends and a skilled enough director to make the movie look incredible. If you think you’ve got the stomach to handle some of it’s darker moments, this is probably one of Cage’s best performances. But really, you should see all three of these movies. So how about you do that and I’ll see you next time?