The 10 greatest Nicolas Cage moments

With Drive Angry 3D on the horizon, we celebrate the cinematic majesty of Nicolas Cage in full flow. And there is a lot to celebrate, too...

I am well aware that the Internet is full to brimming with a variety of Nicolas Cage compilations, with titles such as ‘Cage Rage’ and ‘Cage losing his shit’ becoming part of the web vernacular, but the idea behind this list is to try and reflect the various emotional effects that his films and performances are capable of, not just to list his onscreen outbursts. Though don’t get me wrong, there’s always room for some of that too.

I’ve been itching to defend his work for a while now, as the majority of negative comments about him tend to be centred on the misconception that all he does is make ‘bad’ movies, without people taking the time to look at his career as a whole. To be honest, I thought the remake of Bangkok Dangerous was awful and just recently wrote a tear-filled review of Season of The Witch, so I’m not oblivious to the missteps, but thought that Next and Knowing were perfectly watchable, if flawed, entertainment.

But look at what surrounded those films. Bad Lieutenant, Lord Of War, Matchstick Men, Adaptation, even the National Treasure films were solid fun. Just try and name an actor that hasn’t made a few mistakes and be grateful that at least Cage didn’t just stick to romcoms when he had the chance, or to pure action after Jerry Bruckheimer started him on that path.

There always seems to be a level of personal investment from him into the roles he chooses. So, if he wants to fulfil a childhood dream by becoming a knight in Season Of The Witch, then fine. Or, if he spends years passionately trying to be a part of a live action comic book movie and finally gets Ghost Rider, that’s ok too. Wouldn’t you do the same?

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So, let’s try and tone down the Cage bashing. If you don’t like him, that’s fine. But maybe try a couple of the films on this list. They’ve all affected me in different ways over the years, so maybe they’ll do the same for you (though don’t blame me if you develop a drinking problem after watching Leaving Las Vegas). Some of his more underappreciated and less geek-centric films will be noticeable by their absence, but I’ll hopefully be addressing those in a future article.

The list is, of course, based on my personal highlights, but also serves to illustrate the point that, no matter what the current preconceived notion of his work is, he has an incredibly varied and strong body of work and one which I’ll always be excited to see grow (not least with the incoming, and awesome-looking, Drive Angry 3D next month).

And as for The Wicker Man? Well, I think that speaks for itself.

10. “You just put it in the right file, according to alphabetical order! Y’know A, B , C, D, E, F, G!”

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

It would seem wrong not to include Vampire’s Kiss, though it’s the only film of Cage’s that I watched specifically for this list, mostly due to a friend’s ardent passion for it and because it contains a large amount of the material that frequents the YouTube compilations mentioned. It’s an uneven film at best, though thoroughly enjoyable for all the wrong reasons.

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He plays Peter Loew, a man with an strange accent somewhere between yuppie and Brit (by way of Dick Van Dyke), who seems to have a hallucinogenic breakdown which involves the lovely Jennifer Beals draining his blood and slowly turning him into a vampire. Not the worst meltdown to suffer. The only problem is that the more insane Loew becomes, the more he believes that he is one of the immortal undead.

This involves eating a real cockroach (in an infamous moment of method acting), buying a pair of cheap vampire teeth, becoming a bit rape-y and er, obsessing over a missing file, which seems to draw attention to the banality of city life in a similar fashion to American Psycho, which isn’t the only similarity they share.

There are many, many moments throughout the film of Cage taking insanity in a role to the next level. But the one that I can’t dislodge from my brain takes place in his psychologist’s office, during which he makes his disbelief at misfiling quite clear.

Vampire’s Kiss, unlike the other films on this list, works better as edited highlights for me, but I have a feeling it’s really going to grow on me. Either way I think a clip might be in order to start proceedings.

9. “Good call, babydoll.”

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Kick-Ass (2010)

Bearing in mind that the former Nicholas Coppola, took his screen surname from comic book character, Luke Cage, it was gratifying to see the comic geek in Nic Cage finally get to appear in an adaptation that was so critically acclaimed, especially after the mixed reception that Ghost Rider received.

Back in the nineties, I was so close to getting a comic book film that would have potentially embraced a holy trinity of Cage, Tim Burton and Pierce Brosnan, under the guise of a Superman film, and I’ve never forgotten about it. Imagine Cage’s patience then, as time and time again he was linked to a stream of comic book movies that never happened.

In Kick-Ass he may not have played the young lead hero, but ended up with a far more interesting character in Big Daddy/Damon Macready, though it’s the latter that I loved. As a moustache-adorned father, Macready was utterly sympathetic in his devotion to his daughter, despite Mark Millar’s twisting of the dynamic in the relationship.

As an introduction to both Damon and Mindy Macready (aka Hit-Girl), there was no finer example than their opening moment in the film, where Mindy uses her youthful stature to bargain her way to some ice cream, only in return, having to take a couple of slugs in the chest from a gun her father has pointed at her. It’s a fine scene of black comedy, lifted by the two leads and perfectly ended by just the slightest hint of psychosis by Cage as he squeezes the trigger.

8. “Bangers and mash! Bubbles and squeak! Smoked eel pie! Haggis!”

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National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets (2007)

The now-franchised, National Treasure movies might not be the embodiment of art and commerce that Cage hoped for in his Oscar acceptance speech, but they are damn solid entertainment. They have also helped to plug the historical/action movie gap left open by Indiana Jones, which the first Mummy film grabbed, but couldn’t sustain. The Tomb Raider films followed the same fate not long after, while the less said about the awful The Da Vinci Code, the better.

Cage’s role of Ben Gates is one of his calmer, more mainstream roles, which genuinely works for the character, especially when he’s had to face off against the likes of professional bad guys, Sean Bean and (again) Ed Harris. I’d be lying, though, if I said I’d watched Cage’s performance and not craved just a little bit of mania.

Somewhere, somehow, someone heard my wish and, right in the middle of a normal adventure film, let Cage unleash a tirade of random utterances, in what I can only assume read in the script as ‘Ben causes a disturbance’. It’s a glorious couple of minutes that manages to include his trademark ‘whole arm point’, a funny walk, sliding down a banister, the strangest English accent since Dick Van Dyke and some singing.

As Justin Bartha utters after the scene has finished, “That was brilliant.”

7. “Hey, have you ever been dragged to the sidewalk and beaten until you pissed blood!”

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Matchstick Men (2003)

If this film doesn’t rank as an underappreciated Nicolas Cage film on this list, then it can most definitely be labelled as one of Ridley Scott’s, presumably as it was overshadowed by the more high profile films of Scott’s that sandwiched Matchstick Men, Black Hawk Down and Kingdom Of Heaven. The nature of the film dictates that the less you know about it, the better, but I can tell you that it’s an absolute gem.

A word of warning, though. Cage’s character, Roy Waller, suffers from tics and obsessive compulsive behaviour, so the acting is suitably mannered and perhaps not for everyone. The journey that the character undertakes, though, is made more potent by Waller having to overcome his own habits to accommodate a massive upheaval to his life.

Sam Rockwell is on his own distinctively great sleazy shift duties (which he last employed to solid comedic effect in Iron Man 2). But what really stood out the first time I saw it, was Alison Lohman in the first performance I’d seen her give. She is truly remarkable and her character’s interaction with Waller makes the whole film gel.

But, in order to draw attention away from the film’s plot, I’m going to cheat by choosing an outburst moment from Mr Cage, as the real crux of the film would ruin the movie for you.

The outburst in question is another standout, after Waller’s desperate attempts to keep things under control starts to crumble in a chemist. No one likes a queue jumper, but his frustration at the general public’s attitude to his emergency is something we’ve all felt. So, maybe I’ll give the title quote a go next time I’m stuck waiting to be served.

6. “It was mine. That love. I owned it.”

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Adaptation (2002)

Like Raising Arizona and Lord Of War, Adaptation is a superb film that contains some of his finest work, but isn’t defined by one moment as such, especially when Cage is playing two characters at the same time.

Adaptation is also one of the films on this list that I can whole heartedly recommend to even the stoutest protester of his work, as his dual performance is superb and supported by the excellent Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper.

There is such versatility in Cage’s performance as overweight, balding twins Charlie and Donald Kaufman (I won’t even begin to explain the crossover with the fictional versions of Kaufman with the real one here), that you never question that the scenes in which the brothers converse is anything other than real. Even more impressive are the subtle differences achieved by playing twins who are physically identical, but completely at odds personality-wise.

The moment that best defines the full power of the above comes towards the end of the film, when the two brothers finally share a moment of heartbreaking intimacy. Charlie has spent the majority of the film caught up in his own mind, too intellectually challenged to make much time for his seemingly simple, but happy, brother. When Donald reveals his attitude towards love and rejection, it’s truly moving, especially when mirrored in his brother’s eyes. The whole scene is a masterclass in acting, but the whole film is equally brilliant. Watch it if you haven’t.

5. “FBI!”

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The Rock (1996)

I spent a few years in action movie limbo, as I’d been raised in the 80s with the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal and Van Damme. But when that decade finished, things seemed to dry up. Discovering John Woo’s back catalogue helped sustain me, until one day Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer came to my rescue with Bad Boys, blowing me away as they returned the genre to its explosive, witty glory.

As if that wasn’t enough, they then took my art house hero and made him a bona fide action star, resulting in Cage’s turn as super nerd, Stanley Goodspeed, in The Rock.

The casting in The Rock is top to bottom immaculate. Heavy weights such as Sean Connery and Ed Harris are outstanding, but the supporting actors are given equal chance to shine, with too many to mention save for Michael Biehn, who fulfils his eternal movie destiny, but at least gets to take others down with him this time.

The dynamic between Cage and Connery sparks from their first encounter in an interrogation room (“Offer me coffee.”). But, without doubt, the scene that has been played many, many times over the years during movie sessions is the car chase. It was criticised by some at the time for the choppy editing, which looks tame compared to the standard now. But from the moment The Chase track kicks in on the rooftop, it’s time to prepare to shout “FBI!” and get out the imaginary steering wheel.

It marked Cage’s first moment in a full blown action scene, getting to spout all manner of determined one-liners as he goes, while driving an immaculate, bright yellow Ferrari, avoiding Airplane levels of obstacles and culminating in an exploding tram and the theft of a kid’s bike. Over the top genius, with a score that now ranks amongst my all time best.

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4. “Shoot him again… His soul’s still dancing.”

Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call – New Orleans (2009)

Thank god for the Bad Lieutenant. At a time when people were questioning Cage’s integrity to pick roles that were as edgy and exciting as those at the start of his career, along came director Werner Herzog to inject a fresh integrity into proceedings, while simultaneously making a cracking film.

I foolishly neglected it in my ‘films of the year’ contribution (which I confess I rather hurried), but it gathered quite a bit of attention from my fellow writers, both on and off this site, and for good reason.

After watching Bad Lieutenant, I had to take a moment to try and absorb the film in its entirety, not just on its critical merit, but for exuding the kind of feeling and tone that contemporary cinema doesn’t seem to possess any more.

It threw me back to the kind of independent cinema that I first discovered after seeing Wild At Heart for the first time (which is noted below), and more importantly, had a performance from Cage that left me utterly affected and excited.

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The eccentricities and addictions of the titular lieutenant, Terence McDonagh, fit Mr Cage with an eerie ease, combining every aspect of his performances over the years into one big ball of psychosis.

I can’t contextualise this particular moment in great detail, as it would spoil the film too much, but take the above quote, mix it with the kind of surreal visuals that would normally befit a Coen Brothers film, the Sonny Terry track, Lost John, and you’re some way there.

3. “You can never, never ask me to stop drinking.” / “I am like a prickly pear!”

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Vegas was the film that won Cage an Oscar in 1996, which was dubbed ‘The Year of the Independents’, with the equally brilliant Fargo winning an award for Frances McDormand too. It’s the last Oscars I really remember watching with any passion, as if my brain had accepted that things would never be that well awarded ever again, which was fairly correct, it turns out.

The film basically follows one man’s quest to drink himself to death. Not an especially cheery premise, I’ll grant you, but portrayed in a bittersweet way, while also choosing to incorporate a different kind of love story. It was an incredible high note that marked Cage’s temporary hiatus from independent film (as Las Vegas was promptly followed by his action trilogy), adding little glamour to the effects of alcoholism, with even his physical appearance shown in alarmingly grim detail.

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During my second year at University, I suffered from a slightly bleak patch of isolation and dealt with the problem in time-honoured fashion, by trying to drink away the problem. Thankfully, it didn’t last too long, but during that period Vegas’ Ben Sanderson and I became quite familiar, with my regular refusal to go out with my housemates, trumped by a night in with Cage, a stack of beer and some whisky. It’s funny to look back on now, but a word of warning kids: don’t try this at home.

As with most of his films, it’s very difficult to pick just one moment, especially in a film as beautifully tragic as Leaving Las Vegas, so I’m going to cheat and pick two for their own particular reasons.

The two moments represent both the tragic nature of the films’ anti-hero and the black comedy that runs throughout. When Ben tells his newfound companion, Sera (Elisabeth Shue), that she can never ask him to stop drinking, it marks his resolution to the cause which few films ever choose to do, especially in a world of happy endings. It’s a definitive moment and utterly believable when you’ve witnessed everything that’s happened before. It’s heartbreaking in its restraint and only made worse by the perfect performances.

Then there’s the ‘prickly pear’ incident.

Drunk beyond belief, Ben falls backward into a glass table, and upon standing, broken glass embedded in his back, says, “I am like a prickly pear!” It always, always had me in hysterics (probably because I was drunk) and is seemingly always remembered by my friends when Cage is mentioned. This may be on account of it being shouted in pubs repeatedly, while some idiot fell backwards off his bar stool, on more than one occasion. Hero worship can be a dangerous thing.

2. “Put the bunny back in the box.”

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Con Air (1997)

There’s long been a debate about which is the superior action Cage action flick between Con Air and The Rock. But as much as I adore them both, I have to admit that Air just steals the crown. It does so by ceasing to try and stick to the confines of reality, choosing to become almost cartoonish in tone at times, literally, if watching John Malkovich’s ACME-styled encounter with multiple fatalities, which seems to have divided most people I know that have seen it.

I remember seeing it at the cinema on a date and being struck by two things. That I had never witnessed an action movie literally act on every whim my crazed brain wanted to see, right down to thinking that an unlikely chase scene at the end would make Air one of the best things I’d ever seen. And that if your date says she loves Con Air, then you probably should keep your enthusiasm in check (though with that said, my fiancée is quite the fan).

Unusually, Cage’s Cameron Poe, is the one of the most normal characters in the piece, surrounded by a small army of colourfully named psychopaths, none more so than Geek’s much loved Steve Buscemi as Garland Greene. But it’s Poe’s much quoted confrontation with Billy Bedlam that I have to choose.

Try not to laugh, but it’s the heart and emotional connection I have with Con Air that makes it so good, as I’m a sucker for action movie melodrama. From Poe’s initial and unfair jailing to the (normally tear-filled) resolution, I can’t help but feel for his plight and it’s down to a subdued and southern-twanged Cage that I care. But you know what’s better than a good family drama? Breaking people’s faces.

When Poe finds his cover as a lifelong convict blown by Bedlam in the underbelly of the plane, we finally get to see Poe in action after a long build up and all, comically, focused around the cheap looking bunny rabbit toy that he intends to give to the young daughter he’s never met. As Bedlam throws the bunny to the floor, charging at Poe, we also get the awesome Con Air theme used in all its squealing, 80s rock guitar glory. In fact, I can’t think of a better action anthem to accompany acts of heroic violence.

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I should probably stop writing about Con Air now.

1. “This is a snakeskin jacket… and for me it’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.”

Wild At Heart (1990)

Ah, the movie that started it all, and in the least glamorous way imaginable. My teenage self was kicking around the school grounds with a friend when we made a discovery of potentially pornographic proportions: a video tape, discarded in the undergrowth, with the words ‘Wild at Heart’written on the side.

Anyone who spent their teenage years in the pre-Internet wilderness will appreciate that finding it often did involve wilderness itself, as the mysterious habit of people discarding filth in woods and the like was a common occurrence. However, this time I had no idea that the film in question would prove to be something even better and, in its own way, change the way I looked at cinema.

Wild At Heart proved to be the start of an accessible road to the cinematic work of David Lynch, and due to my love of Heart, helped me to break into American independent cinema and films by such overlooked auteurs as Hal Hartley. More relevantly, it would also mark the start of an eternal hero worship for Nic Cage himself.

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As lead Sailor Ripley, Cage plays the kind of character who is unattainably cool, especially to an insecure teenage boy. Sailor smokes, fights, sings and kills, all without hesitation, in the name of love, while constantly enthusing about his snakeskin jacket’s importance. It’s also incredible how many Cage-isms are established in full effect in Wild at Heart: the whole arm pointing, a literal embodiment of Elvis Presley (one of Cage’s real life obsessions) in his performance and singing throughout the soundtrack, the mania and violent outbursts.

The moment that I’ve chosen, therefore, which reflects the best of the character and Cage himself, comes when Sailor and Lula (played by an incandescent Laura Dern) hit a local club and cut loose on the dance floor, as Cage throws his Elvis moves with abandon, cigarette in mouth, until someone makes the mistake of hitting on his girl.

Stopping the music (which happens to be the track Slaughterhouse, by Power Mad, and is used incidentally throughout the film during acts of sex and violence as a recurring motif, like the snakeskin jacket) with one flick of the devil horns, Sailor offers the random guy a chance to walk away. The guy declines and is consequently owned in one swift movement that also extinguishes Sailor’s discarded cigarette. The punter duly apologises, Sailor tells him to go and get himself a beer, before breaking into Elvis’ Love Me and having sex.

Effortlessly cool to this day.

Other moments that nearly made the cut:

“I’d never tried brown-brown before, but then I’d never killed a man either.” – Lord Of War (2005)

“I was made for this sewer baby and I am the king! – Snake Eyes (1998)

“I’m Castor Troy!” – Face/Off (1997)

Head to the comments to share moments when The Cage made an impact on you.

Drive Angry 3D arrives in UK cinemas on Friday 25th February.

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