Nicolas Cage has had one of the most fascinating careers of contemporary movie actors. The nephew of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), Cage emerged as a star in the 1980s with classics such as Raising Arizona and Moonstruck, then found even bigger glory in the 1990s as an Oscar winner (for Leaving Las Vegas) and global action icon (The Rock, Face/Off, Con Air). By 2010, however, Cage had become something of a punch line for both the gonzo intensity of his acting and for working ceaselessly to pay off his infamous debts — often in B movies made on the cheap, in the kind of flicks that would have typically gone “straight to video” in the pre-streaming era.
But, as Cage himself has said, the secret to his longevity and maintaining a prolific career even as he fell from Hollywood’s A-list is that he never phones in a performance. Even in what might seem like the cheapest, silliest, weirdest pictures, he brings conviction and commitment to the role. As such, his later roles represent some of his most daring and inventive work. To celebrate the release of his latest, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, itself a paean to all things Nic Cage, here are the actor’s best live-action films of the 21st century according to Rotten Tomatoes.
Lord of War was an expensive drama ($50 million dollars) when Cage was at the tail end of the period during which his movies still had Hollywood budgets. However, the movie fared poorly with American audiences, who, still in the patriotic aftermath of 9/11, perhaps weren’t interested in a movie about U.S. complicity in arming genocidal warlords.
Cage plays Yuri Orlov, a second-generation Ukrainian immigrant who, with the help of his troubled brother (Jared Leto), becomes an international arms dealer pursued by a crusading Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke). The movie is loosely based on true accounts, which make Yuri’s moral crisis and the insights into global arms manufacturing all the more compelling. But critics ultimately found that the narrative elements of the film fit together unevenly.
Oliver Stone, the famously controversial chronicler of American historical traumas and misdeeds (Platoon, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July), brings his bold (some would say pummeling) filmmaking style to the events of 9/11, though this time with a decidedly more celebratory view of American valor. Based on a true story, the movie stars Cage as Sgt. John McLoughlin and Michael Peña as Will Jimeno, two real-life police officers who were pinned under the rubble of the collapsed South Tower and who almost died before being rescued.
Ironically, critics found the film to be almost too sentimental in its earnest evocation of American heroism, and panned Stone for not bringing his normal critical eye toward American foreign policy, which was then being roundly castigated for the Iraq War and the sanction of torture, among other controversies.
Written and directed by Brian Taylor, this indie black comedy didn’t find much of an audience, but critics appreciated the clever premise. Cage and Selma Blair play Brent and Kendall, the parents of two school-age children who find themselves afflicted by a broadcast that brainwashes local parents to murder their own children. The big joke is that neither Brent nor Kendall were all that excited about being parents in the first place, so perhaps these new compulsions represent something of an opportunity to exorcise their midlife crisis in the most violently cathartic way possible — as Brent does when he wrecks his nascent man cave with a sledgehammer while singing “The Hokey Pokey” (a classic Cage moment).
The film delivers a sufficient quantity of mordant laughs and gory shocks, though Taylor seems wisely aware that a brisk 83 minutes is all this material can sustain.
An opportunity for Cage to work with director Ridley Scott, then at one his creative peaks (he was coming off Gladiator and Black Hawk Down), Matchstick Man wasn’t quite the success one might hope their pairing would produce. Cage plays Roy Waller, a con man with obsessive compulsive disorder hoping to reestablish a relationship with his teen daughter (Alison Lohman), only to begin to involve her in one of his scams.
As one might expect, Cage goes all-in on depicting Roy’s OCD, and the performance is convincing, verging on the uncomfortable. Critics were impressed, but found the performances of Cage, Lohman, and Sam Rockwell, as Roy’s partner in crime, more diverting than the somewhat underwhelming con plot.
Before graduating to stoner comedies like The Pineapple Express and endless remakes of Halloween, director David Gordon Green specialized in intimate character studies such as George Washington and All the Real Girls. He works in that mode here, while still bringing the brooding menace and punctuations of brutality required for an effective small-town crime story.
Cage plays Joe Ransom, an ex-con who strikes up a friendship with Gary (Tye Sheridan), an aimless teen in need of both a father figure and protection from his real deadbeat dad, which Joe is happy to provide, even as the danger increases. Critics appreciated Green’s atmospheric work, the uncharacteristically dialed-back Cage performance, and the relationship between Joe and Gary, calling it the heart of the film.
The idea for this film sounds like the winner of the Most Unlikely Movie Premise contest: Get Cage to play a version of Harvey Keitel’s loathsome Bad Lieutenant from Abel Ferrara’s infamous 1992 film and have legendary German auteur Werner Herzog direct it. Oh, and let’s set the whole thing in New Orleans, post-Katrina, then fill it with slithering reptiles (gator, iguana, snake, and, well, human).
The twist, of course, is that the movie actually got made. The result is a riveting portrait of a man on the edge, a cop played by Cage who is so completely in thrall to his addictions that he openly conducts criminal transactions in the police station, steals drugs from anybody he comes across, and sticks his .44 Magnum in the face of two old ladies who won’t cooperate. Critics lauded the gripping crime plot as well as Cage’s epic performance, in which he marshals his every skill as an actor to make this monster sympathetically human.
Based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, Color Out of Space (directed by Richard Stanley) is a mashup of the sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and cosmic philosophy that characterized the author’s work. As in Mandy, which is next on the list, Cage plays a husband just trying to live peacefully off the grid with his family when a meteor carrying extraterrestrial life strikes nearby. The alien presence manifests as an unearthly fuchsia glow, seeps into the local water system, and wreaks havoc on the family and their neighbors.
Color Out of Space owes more than a little to John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, as well as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with some Dracula and Frankenstein thrown in for good measure. But the movie plays like a celebration of its influences, not a rip-off, and the visuals, along with Cage’s unhinged performance, make this a trippy trip worth taking.
The unrated Mandy works as a companion piece to Color Out of Space, but one that is even more bizarre and ultraviolent. It’s a phantasmagoric, hallucinatory fever dream of a motion-picture experience (and that is not a sentence you can write about many films). Cage goes full-bore crazy in this one, playing a logger living way off the grid who hunts down a cult of sadistic zealots and their psychopathic leader after they kidnap his wife.
Critics appreciated Cage’s fully committed performance as a man crazed by pain, grief, and the need for vengeance, as well as the aesthetic realized by director Panos Cosmatos that, in its fusion of high fantasy, sexualized violence, and psychedelia, feels like early ’80s Heavy Metal magazine covers come to life. The whole thing plays like a bad LSD trip, and it’s absolutely meant to.
Directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation was part of a fertile creative period for the duo that also yielded the beloved Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all within a five-year period. Like those two films, Adaptation is so anti-Hollywood in its satirical tone, structure, and meta engagement with real life that it’s a little amazing it got made, even at the tail end of the indie cinema boom of the ’90s.
The movie earned Cage his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and he gives an entirely convincing performance as two very different twin brothers: The talented but neurotic Charlie, who is struggling mightily to adapt a difficult nonfiction book into a screenplay; and the shallow but undaunted Donald, who writes and sells a successful, though formulaic, screenplay under Charlie’s nose. If you’re wondering how all this leads to hijinks in the Florida Everglades with Meryl Streep, well, it’s just that kind of movie.
Another of Cage’s low-budget indies, Pig (directed by Michael Sarnoski) emerged from way under the radar to become one of the best-reviewed movies of 2021. Cage plays Robin Feld, a hermit living in the Oregon woods who ekes out a living selling truffles nosed up by his beloved swine. When intruders kidnap the old girl, Feld goes on an underground odyssey through the Portland haute cuisine scene to get her back.
The movie’s setup could easily have had Feld launch into full John Wick revenge mode, kicking in doors and massacring the hooligans responsible for disturbing his delicate peace (as Cage does in Mandy). But despite some tense moments, Pig is a meditative film about finding a way forward through grief and regret. Critics praised the film, as well as Cage’s central performance, calling it one of his best in years.