Killer Parents and Armies of One: A Guide to the Movies of Nicolas Cage’s Wilderness Years
Here's one final piece of Cage-iana before we close the book on 'Age of Cage.'
Here’s the thing about being a freelancer, at least in my experience: most of the time it’s a largely pleasant process of pitch-write-edit-repeat, particularly if you get in a groove with an editor you like. Every once in a while, however, something goes wrong, though often it’s not really anybody’s fault. The worst is when a completed piece just disappears, never to see the light of day.
Unless, of course, it ends up in a newsletter. I wrote the following for [publication redacted] to coincide with the release of Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career. But, for one reason or another, it ended up on [redacted]’s scrapheap. I still like it, so I thought I’d share it here. And, though I haven’t mentioned it in a while, Age of Cage is still in bookstores and available to order online. You know how some books come out and then are pulled from the shelves never to be seen again? Well, this isn’t one of those. It’s still very much for sale!
For a good stretch of the ’90s and the ’00s, Nicolas Cage was one of the biggest stars in the world. Then he wasn’t. The actor whose face once lined multiplex hallways could now reliably be found headlining films that premiered at Redbox kiosks or on VOD. Between 2011’s Trespass co-starring Nicole Kidman — one of the first films with big-name stars to be released simultaneously on-demand and in (a few) theaters — and his 2021 comeback Pig, Cage appeared in 40 films, working at a frenetic pace in part to pay off debts accumulated at the height of his stardom. A few opened theatrically in the U.S. Most did not. But it would be a mistake to write all of them off as part of Cage’s lost decade. I dove and watched them all while writing my book Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career) and found some remarkable films. But even the unremarkable ones give Cage, always engaged, an opportunity to do something of note, even when the stories and actors around him refuse to cooperate.
For the curious and the adventurous, here’s a guide to the good, the weird, the intriguing, and the musts to avoid. Because there’s so much to take in, I’ve divided the work into a handful of categories, starting with some notable movies you might have missed and ending with titles that you probably won’t mind missing.
The VOD world is filled with largely interchangeable genre films. Cage has made his share over the years (see below) but, more often, he’s prioritized movies with genuine artistic aspirations. Sometimes their reach exceeds their grasp. But sometimes it doesn’t. Cage has frequently cited German Expressionism and silent filmmaking as inspirations for his performances. (Try watching Face/Off with the sound off. It still works.) But he can be just as effective in a more naturalistic mode, as he’s proved both early and late in his career, playing a scarred (literally and otherwise) Vietnam vet in 1984’s Birdy and in Pig. He’s similarly restrained and effective in David Gordon Green’s Joe (2013), starring as a man trying to do some good while putting his violent past behind him.
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Otherwise, Cage’s most memorable performances during his VOD period appear in cult and genre films, like the wild H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space and The Trust, a nastily funny heist movie co-starring Elijah Wood and, for one scene, Jerry Lewis, another early Cage inspiration. Even better, but not for the weak of stomach, is Brian Taylor’s 2017 shocker Mom & Dad, in which a community descends into chaos when parents start killing their children. The film mixes satirical weirdness with genuine poignance. Amidst all the madness and violence, Mom & Dad pauses for Cage to deliver a wrenching monologue about thwarted ambition and the disappointments of middle age. And Panos Coasmatos’s metal-tinged ’80s-set Mandy is a nightmarish masterpiece in which Cage’s performance balances a drive for revenge with heartbreaking mournfulness. A study of loss set in a world inspired by heavy metal album covers and VHS-era horror art, it’s a film like no other, tied to a singular turn from its star.
Cage’s Redbox years found him working with some promising emerging directors and some established veterans on films that largely ended up coming and going with little notice. He teamed up with Paul Schrader twice, first for the espionage drama Dying of the Light (mangled by studio interference), then for the brutal crime thriller Dog Eat Dog, which is, frankly, so nihilistic it becomes tough to watch but features strong work from Cage and Willem Dafoe. For Larry Charle,s he starred as a weirdo determined to kill Osama bin Laden in the fact-inspired Army of One, delivering a big, Jerry Lewis-inspired performance as he stumbles through the thorny underside of post-9/11 global politics on a mission from God.
Cage also appeared in a handful of others that, for one reason or another, don’t quite work. But they’re not bad, either, and it’s fun to watch Cage opposite co-stars like Willem Dafoe (a Wild at Heart reunion, found in Dog Eat Dog) and Anton Yelchin.
The Frozen Ground (2013)
The Runner (2015)
USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016)
Looking Glass (2018)
Too Weird to Be Forgotten
Since styling his hair in a gravity-defying pompadour and borrowing a voice from Gumby’s horse friend Pokey for Peggy Sue Got Married, Cage hasn’t been afraid to push his characters to weird extremes. In these movies, he seems to have been given free reign to weird it up, as when he elects to wear a costume inspired by Dennis Hopper’s Apocalypse Now character in the ultra-low budget action film Jiu Jitsu. Of late, he’s delivered big, bold performances in films with obvious cult aspirations, like his silent work in the Five Nights at Freddy’s-inspired horror cheapie Willy’s Wonderland, or Sion Sono’s unclassifiable post-apocalyptic Western Prisoners of the Ghostland. For Arsenal, he even dusted off the mustachioed tough guy he played in the 1993 obscurity Deadfall, a favorite of fans of Cage at his most over-the-top. The movies themselves may not be artistically successful, but it’s fun to watch Cage hoist his freak flag in the middle of them.
Between Worlds (2018)
Voiceover Work and Other Miscellany
Cage largely disappeared from theatrically released live action films during this stretch, with the occasional exception like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, an unsuccessful superhero sequel that served as a kind of goodbye to Hollywood. Cage’s voice, on the other hand, could be found starring in a couple of Croods movies and in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, where he at last played the Man of Steel after almost starring in a Superman movie directed by Tim Burton in the ’90s. He also pays lovely tribute to former co-star Anton Yelchin, sensitively reading the late actor’s diaries in voice over.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Sometimes the direct-to-VOD market seems to exist to give a home to mediocrity, movies that aren’t great and aren’t awful–they’re just kind of there. Cage made plenty of these during his period of frenzied employment (see below), as well as a handful of truly dreadful movies, none worse than Rage, a tale of gangland revenge set in Mobile, Alabama. (During this stretch, Cage tended to appear in a lot of movies shot in locations with generous tax incentives.) It’s the worst film in Cage’s filmography, though Left Behind, an apocalyptic “thriller” adapting a bestselling evangelical series set in the end times, provides pretty stiff competition. Even worse, Cage seems uncharacteristically disengaged in each. Of this period, Cage recently told GQ, “I never phoned it in. So if there was a misconception, it was that. That I was just doing it and not caring. I was caring.” Almost every Cage performance backs up this claim. Almost.
Vengeance: A Love Story (2017)
The Forgettable Rest
Nicolas Cage will be remembered for his work in many terrific films, from Valley Girl through Pig. He will not be remembered for these. Again, most aren’t terrible, they’re simply there. Cage, on the other hand, is more than there. Eleven in the mostly non-descript 2018 thriller 211, he remains fully committed to the character, making choices that lift the bland material around him. The movies got smaller. He didn’t. But after the revelatory Pig and with the self-reflective comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which reckons with his decade-long career dip via a hall of mirrors action comedy, and the role of Dracula in Renfield ahead, that might soon change.
Seeking Justice (2011)
Pay the Ghost (2015)
The Humanity Bureau (2017)
A Score to Settle (2019)
Running with the Devil (2019)
Kill Chain (2019)
Grand Isle (2019)