Five Of The Best: Nicolas Cage Performances

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The world’s greatest living actor, Nicolas Cage, returns to our cinema screens this week in black comedy heist tale The Trust; and so to celebrate, we asked Kase Allen – our foremost expert on Sir Nick of Cage – to compile his list of the five definitive performances from the man himself.

It’s the classic story: hero is defending his wife’s honour, hero is unjustly blamed and imprisoned, hero is a force for good amongst evil, hero aids the feds in the locating of an abducted prison plane by writing a message on a corpse, dropping the corpse like GCSE Spanish out of the plane and then decimating the Vegas strip with the crashing wreck affectionately know as “Con Air”.

It’s a film as silly as it is quotable (“Why couldn’t you put the bunny back in the box?”) featuring an extremely game and knowing cast. John Cusack gets the clunky exposition but also gets to look cool stealing Colm Meaney’s convertible, while John Malkovich hams it up like a prize-winning hog farmer as Cyrus the Virus, and it’s here that Cage earns his stripes as an action star.

Even as a die hard fan of Cage, I often find it hard to get excited about a new joyless Cage paycheck action film like Trespass, Stolen, Justice, or his numerous other one word titles; yet Con Air is the tasty – if slightly questionable meat – in a Cage action movie sandwich, resting neatly in between The Rock and Face/Off, slathered in spicy Cage hot sauce and a pickle that looks like Danny Trejo.

An early and pivotal film not just for Cage, but also for filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen – whose sophomoric effort was this off-kilter and good-natured comedy about slack-jawed ex-con H.I. McDunnough who aims to give his infertile ex-cop wife a child. Naturally, hijinks ensue.

The Coens dance between domestic dramedy and French farce with ease – assisted by Cage’s portrayal of a guy who now finally has a purpose and a reason to rehabilitate. His performance in Raizing Arizona marked a fairly drastic transition in his career: up until this point, he was just “that Coppola kid that would show up to play a surfer, best friend or a minor love interest”. While his performances in Peggy Sue Got Married and Valley Girl were certainly solid, after all, they hadn’t firmly put him on the map and, as such, nobody really knew what sort of characters he was capable of crafting. And so, while H.I. is more subtle than the Cage characters we know – and weirdly love – today, he is a good indicator or where Cage was headed.

The film also contains fun little trappings and clues for future Coen brothers films – Carter Burwell scored the film and regular collaborator John Goodman made his Coens debut here – but wouldn’t it be fantastic see Cage and the Coens together again?

As proved in Raising Arizona, when it comes to burgeoning auteurs, Nic Cage likes to get in on the act early on.

For his follow-up to Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze directs a twisty, meta script from Charlie Kaufman, featuring not one but two Cage performances. First, Cage stars as Charlie Kaufman – an exaggerated, confused cover-version of the real-world Kaufman – suffering a major anxiety attack over his latest project, an adaptation of The Orchard Thief by Susan Orlean (played here by annual Oscar nominee Meryl Streep). However, Cage also takes on the role of Charlie’s mooch of a brother, Donald (a fictional character) – who, himself, is now a screenwriter – albeit with an eighth of the talent or success of Charlie.

The film itself subverts the classic idea of adapting a story and chooses instead to focus on the process of creating an adaptation while simultaneously mirroring story beats from the original book. Kaufman (the actual one) was originally perplexed at the notion of bringing the original text to life and, eventually, charged through his severe writer’s block with a script now considered to be one of his very best.

The film nabbed a Best Supporting Actor win for Chris Cooper and Cage himself earned a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He didn’t win though, Adrien Brody claimed the prize that year for The Pianist – a film in which the slacker only played one paltry role. There is no justice in the world.

Stick with me on this one, kids: I’ve not gone mad, I’ve not been bitten by a potential vampiric lady of the night. It’s not a good film. I know it, you know it, Nic Cage’s pet octopus (true story!) knows it. However, there is no doubting his commitment to the role, because you should never start a fight with somebody who will eat a live cockroach just to get into character.

This particular character is Peter Loew – a philandering publishing executive who picks up a hooker at a bar and – in the resulting throws of passionate love making  (if you don’t want to see Nic Cage’s sex face then maybe steer clear of this one) is bitten on the neck. Simultaneously, Peter sees a bat fly into his apartment and, understandably enough, believes that he himself is now a vampire. If that doesn’t make you want to see it then you clearly have 0% interest in cinema and should buy a ticket for Step Up 9: The Search For Channing Tatum’s Gold. It’s a bonkers premise and a bonkers performance, but it’s also strangely mesmerising and difficult to look away from.

It may be the film that launched a thousand memes, but – by its final ten minutes – you will almost certainly believe that Nicolas Cage is a vampire.

Every now and again, Cage will reign in his bombastic horses and deliver a performance full of nuance and grace. He’s displayed these qualities in films such as Red Rock West, The Weather Man and most recently in David Gordon Green’s excellent Joe. Yet the best example of a more introspective Cage is his Oscar winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas.

Cage plays an alcoholic screenwriter at the end of his rope, who decides to drink himself to death in Las Vegas. It’s not the cheeriest of set ups, and, indeed, the film goes down some dark roads. In the front of the car however are two exceptional performances from Cage and co-star Elizabeth Shue – who plays Sera – a prostitute and pseudo-sympathiser to Cage’s unravelling Ben.

Their relationship anchors the film and, while they have differing opinions throughout, you empathise whole-heartedly with each of them. You can feel precisely why Sera is in her line of work, why Ben can’t kick the habit, and you can certainly understand why they only have each other to depend on.

Of course, I’m missing some of the biggies on this list – it breaks my heart not to include Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man – but I’m forced to keep to a lean five picks. Honourable mentions though include Bad Lieutenent: Port Of Call New Orleans -who doesn’t love Werner Herzog zaniness?, Matchstick Men, the National Treasures, Moonstruck and Guarding Tess – the latter for purely sentimental reasons. Regardless of the film though, all hail the Cage!

The Trust is in select cinemas from Friday, May 27th; rated 15. Check out the trailer below and our review here.

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