The 8 Ball: Top 8 Nicolas Cage Films
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 08.12.2014
From Big Daddy in Kick-Ass and The Rock's Stanley Goodspeed to H. I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona, Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 Nicolas Cage roles!
Top 8 Nicolas Cage Roles
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
Nicolas Cage. Just mentioning his name can cause some people to roll their eyes. The venerable actor has a very strange profile as an actor; he's a winner of multiple awards including an Academy Award and yet he also has a reputation for making terrible choices in terms of films, not mention the often bizarre performances he gives in said films. For every accolade he has it seems there are two or three internet memes or mocking YouTube clips of his on-screen strangeness. In my opinion, Cage is a fantastic actor who simply makes some poor choices from time to time and this week we're going to examine his best on-screen roles.
Caveat: As with my previous lists looking at an actor or actress' roles, I considered all of Cage's fictional narrative performances for this column, with the exceptions of roles where he played himself. Obviously cameo and supporting performances got much less weight than leading roles and that's why they're not really on here.
Just Missing The Cut
• Frank Pierce (Bringing Out the Dead)
• Castor Troy/Sean Archer (Face/Off)
• Sailor (Wild at Heart)
• Charlie Bodell (Peggy Sue Got Married)
• Milton (Drive Angry)
#8: Yuri Orlov (Lord of War)
First on our list is an oft-overlooked gem of a film from just before Cage's career began to sink downward. Lord of War released soon after one of the biggest blockbusters of the actor's career, National Treasure. The war drama stars Cage as Yuri Orlov, an arms trafficker who recognizes the value of the trade as a way to get ahead in life. The more that his career takes off, the more problems he has in his personal life and it isn't long before he's being investigated by government agencies with the lives of those he cares about in serious danger. Cage's character was loosely based on that of post-Soviet arms dealer Viktor Bout and other stories of arms dealers from the former Soviet Union and Cage delivers a complete, multi-layered performance that would cause a double-take from most people who are not familiar with this kind of work from him. The film was a passion project of Cage's and he excels in portraying the morally complex Yuri, a role that I've enjoyed watching him in more than once.
#7: Damon Macready/Big Daddy (Kick-Ass)
Kick-Ass is one of the best examples of how Cage can take a role and go completely off the wall with it but still make it work. This doesn't always work for him (see: The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) but when it does, he's entirely captivating. There are two things that people most strongly remember from this most pleasant of superhero surprises: Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl and Cage's role as Big Daddy. It was said that when Cage started doing his Adam West thing under the mask, people on set didn't really know what to make of it; director Matthew Vaughn didn't have any thoughts of him doing it that way and it wasn't written to be such. But after a few runs of looking over the dailies Vaughn saw Cage's intent and loved it, letting him cut loose. Cage takes what could have been a fairly by-the-numbers role and made it distinctive, but he also took care to play the non-costumed parts with humanity and grounding. The father-daughter relationship is nicely established between Cage and Moretz, making the stakes appropriately high when they're threatened. It's a very recent example of how bold Cage is as an actor when making choices and how, when he has the right material, he can really soar.
#6: Terrence McDonagh (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans)
Many people--myself included--groaned and rolled their eyes when an indirect sequel to Abel Ferrara's controversial 1992 classic Bad Lieutenant was announced in 2008. While Werner Herzog directing seemed like an interesting choice, Cage trying to reach the high bar that had been set by Harvey Keitel seemed inconceivable. Part of that had to do with the fact that he had just been through a critically-reviled (or at least disdained) series of films that included The Wicker Man, Bangkok Dangerous, Next and Knowing; the actor was in full "phoning it in" mode and taking any role he could due to tax problems that had begun mounting. But with the role of Terrence McDonagh, the titular amoral law enforcement officer in post-Katrina New Orleans, Cage found his groove and gave an inspired, intense performance. There are moments in this film where he's completely off his rocker, but it works with the drug-addled, pain-riddled character. Herzog keeps things moving along in an eccentric manner that is typical of the director and Cage takes the opportunity of a really good role to just cut loose. It's not the easiest film in the world to watch and McDonagh is far from likable, but Cage enthralls us and makes us care regardless. To do that with a character like this is quite a skill.
#5: H. I. McDunnough (Raising Arizona)
There are people who will likely balk at my having placed what is considered one of Cage's most iconic roles so low on the list. I promise that this isn't any statement against Raising Arizona; rather, it's a statement about how good the four roles above it are. The role of H. I. McDunnough was one of Cage's first major leading roles; he had been building his career with supporting roles in bigger films or lead roles in independent features but this was truly his big break. Cage made the most of it and showed that he could handle the Coen brothers' rare brand of comedy, which is a rarer trick to pull off than some might expect. H.I. is a sympathetic and well-meaning but ultimately bungling criminal who is just trying to make the love of his life happy. Playing a role like this seriously but being able to handle the comic beats as well really anchored the film and helped make it become a classic in the Coens' filmography, not to mention one on Cage's resume as well and it helped push him onto bigger and bigger roles.
#4: Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (The Rock)
These days it's easy to think of Cage as one of those actors who shifts between quirky independent films and major blockbusters, but there was a time that you would look at him and think, "Nic Cage an action star? Nah, never." Michael Bay helped change all that when he cast Cage to play FBI chemical superfreak Stanley Goodspeed in The Rock. Cage has done several other big action franchises since and is generally quite good in them, but this is easily his best action performance and his best action film. He is completely within the skin of Goodspeed, a man who doesn't know squat about being in the field until he's paired with ex-con John Mason and a team of Navy SEALs to infiltrate Alcatraz and stop a terrorist attack but rises to the occasion. Cage makes that transition believable and establishes fantastic chemistry with Connery. Their antagonistic banter makes for some of the best dialogue in the film and Cage holds his own against the acting heavyweight. This performance showed off Cage's versatility to a level that hadn't been seen before and launched his foray into blockbusters that resulted in fun films like Con Air and Face/Off.
#3: Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman (Adaptation)
There's a lot of debate as to what Nicolas Cage's best pure acting performance is, and for many people it is his double role as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in Spike Jonze's Adaptation. It's not quite the best in my opinion obviously, but it certainly comes close. Cage is stellar as the twin brothers in this strange and wonderful meta-film, based in part on Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. It's certainly the best script of any Cage has taken on and the actor commits himself fully to both roles, taking on the real Charlie and fictional Donald with complete dedication. These days any actor taking on multiple roles is trumped by Tatiana Maslany's work in Orphan Black but here Cage is Maslany's equal in that department; he nails both roles with complete believability to the point that if you didn't know there was digital trickery involved, it could be easily believed that Cage had a twin that was one hell of an actor. Cage earned an Academy Award nomination for this role and had the misfortune of being up against an exceedingly difficult field; this is a performance that could have won most years out.
#2: Joe (Joe)
A lot of people right now are saying "What the hell is Joe?" Cage has been doing a lot of straight-to-video fare as of late, presumably in continued attempts to pay off that massive debt of his. Many of the roles, such as Frozen Ground and Stolen, are ones that he hasn't put a lot of effort in and just used to pay the bills. Joe is very much not that kind of film. Cage plays the titular ex-con of this dark coming of age story from director David Gordon Green, a troubled alcoholic who runs a work crew and strikes up a mentor/protégé relationship with an equally troubled teenage boy who lives in an abusive household. Ty Sheridan excels as the teenaged Gary and matches up with Cage well, but it's the elder actor who really commands the screen. Instead of his usual over-the-top performances, Cage tones things down and keeps it restrained and it's all the more startling because we're not used to Cage in that kind of performance. It's a layered, poignant piece of acting from a man who many have expected incapable of such things at this point of his career and it reminds us exactly what the man is capable when he gets a role that he truly takes hold of.
#1: Ben Sanderson (Leaving Las Vegas)
Cage's Oscar-winning turn is his best. As much as we can talk about the Academy Awards being a poor judge of best performances, this one really is his best. This is the film that really opened everyone's eyes as to how fantastic of an actor that Cage really is. He's heart-wrenching to watch as Ben, a man whose alcoholism has driven him to the brink, and he travels to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. While there, he meets a prostitute named Sera and they begin a strange relationship. Just about every scene in this incredibly bleak film is depressing, but depressing in just the right way. Cage invests Ben with a level of emotional pain and desperation that is just fantastic. It's one of the most tragic performances that I can think of over the last twenty years, a toxic and emotionally desolate individual who can't find it in him to stop running toward his death in the most abysmal way you could possibly imagine. People can give Cage all the hell that they want for stuff like The Wicker Man and Season of the Witch and all the rest, but performances like this prove that he really is one a great actor and in fact one of the more underrated actors of his generation.
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.