Is Nicolas Cage the New Al Pacino?
Nicolas Cage always was an unlikely action hero. There was precious little about his hangdog eyes, receding hairline, and sleepy drawl that suggested a matinee idol in the making, and yet for nearly a decade he reigned as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leading men, at one point commanding $20 million per film. But after a string of box-office disappointments, including his latest project, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Cage’s days of pulling down eight-figure paychecks to topline studio blockbusters are almost certainly at an end.
“It’s about damn time!” some of you might declare — a perfectly reasonable response, given Cage’s mediocre output over the past several years — but I can’t help but feel a bit disheartened to witness the slow, tortured decline of a truly one-of-a-kind movie star who, after his Leaving Las Vegas Oscar triumph catapulted him into the A-list, could be counted on in his films to provide us with at least one out-of-nowhere, gloriously batsh*t moment rarely glimpsed in mainstream studio faire.
Witness his "Zeus's Butthole" speech in The Rock:
Or his "Bunny in the Box" sequence in Con Air:
These weren’t low-budget art-house flicks; these were Jerry Bruckheimer films, the most popcorn of the popcorn, previously the domain of handsome, respectable young men like Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington. And yet there was crazy Nic Cage, with his idiosyncratic line readings and propensity for awkward outbursts, being sold as a credible action star. And, incredibly, audiences bought it in droves.
Cage’s mainstream breakout was extraordinarily timed: It was the mid-‘90s, when the favorite brand of pop music was something unironically dubbed “alternative” and pop culture consumers embraced just about anything labeled — however superficially — as “independent.” Unpolished, unpredictable, and refreshingly unconventional in both style and appearance, Cage offered the antidote for action audiences weary of monosyllabic muscleheads like Schwarzenegger or chiseled boy scouts like Cruise; if he didn’t beat up the bad guys, Cage would at the very least make them very, very uncomfortable:
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Cage’s prolonged descent began, but I suspect it was around the time he came perilously close to starring in a Tim Burton-directed reboot of Superman. The movie never happened, of course — Warner Bros. got cold feet and pulled the plug on the project — but the simple fact that Cage thought himself appropriate for the role signaled that his judgment had become impaired. Even allowing for corrective hairpieces and muscle-enhancing suits and some kind of wildly revisionist Burton take on the character, it would still require a rather generous leap of faith on part of the audience to buy him as the Man of Steel. Bizarro, perhaps, but not Superman.
Whatever the cause, Cage’s tastes grew increasingly schlocky in the aughts, and he spent much of the decade alternating between transparent Oscar bait and shameless cash grabs, occasionally surprising us with an enjoyable spectacle like National Treasure or a work of genius like Adaptation, but just as often bewildering us with unmitigated disasters like The Wicker Man:
Nowadays, Cage’s films are more notable for the increasingly ludicrous hairstyles he sports in them than anything else. And whether by choice or necessity, he seems increasingly willing to play to his outsized freak-show rep in both indie roles, like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (which I loved), and studio projects, like Sorcerer's Apprentice. His character in the latter film is depicted essentially as an eccentric uncle, held at arm’s length by both the titular hero, played by Jay Baruchel, and the audience. “If he has not quite approached a Christopher Walken level of sublime self-parody,” A.O. Scott noted in his review of the film, “Mr. Cage has at least established himself as the heir to Al Pacino in the crazy mentor pantheon.”
Scott’s observation is spot-on, and it could be a sign of things to come. While Pacino, who now dabbles almost exclusively in blustery caricature, seems resigned to peddling his schtick in overpaid supporting roles, Cage’s variety can still command top billing — for now. His medieval supernatural thriller Season of the Witch, produced by beleaguered Lionsgate, has been beset by delays, and his independently financed thriller The Hungry Rabbit Jumps has yet to secure a U.S. distributor. New installments of National Treasure and Ghost Rider, Cage’s two remaining viable action franchises, are still in their infancy, facing futures that are anything but certain.
Among the new generation of action heroes, the ranks of which are dominated by conventional man-candy types like Jake Gyllenhaal and Sam Worthington, there isn’t a single Nicolas Cage to be found. Even so-called “troubled” heroes are now played by actors like Christian Bale and Robert Downey Jr., both of whom are regulars in the various annual “hottest celebrities” lists. And Johnny Depp’s oddballs, however inspired, are rendered less authentic by his indisputable good looks, which stubbornly shine through the layers of kabuki makeup Tim Burton loves to slather on him.
Years from now, Cage's mainstream movie career may well viewed as some sort of historical anomaly, revisited from time to time by nostalgic cinephiles on YouTube, where clips of his finest moments can be found in abundance. The Nicolas Cage Action-Hero Era may be gone forever, but we will never, ever forget Zeus's Butthole.