The Holy Trinity of Nicolas Cage: The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off

Praise the lord of onscreen crazy! We travel back to the era when Nicolas Cage was the biggest action star on the planet...

Nicolas Cage and John Travola in Face/Off
Photo: Paramount Pictures

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

For much of the past three decades, Nicolas Cage has commanded a level of devotion among fans that borders on religious fervour.

While the quality and quantity of his projects has varied wildly, his intense method acting approach – one he describes as “Nouveau Shamadic” – has resulted in some intense and brilliantly manic performances, earning him God-like status among a certain demographic of movie fans.

Taking inspiration from the witch doctors of pre-Christian civilization, Cage prepares for each and every role by working himself into a trance-like state in order to connect with the character and the work. The results are usually even crazier than the preparations.

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Watching Cage in his element is something akin to a religious experience. So, it’s only right that someone goes back to where it all started. The moment when Cage went from Hollywood heartthrob to America’s new all-action hero. Three movies made over the course of two career-defining years. The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off: aka, the Holy Trinity of Nicolas Cage.

In the Beginning

If someone had told you back in 1996 that Cage was set to become the biggest action star on the planet, you probably would have laughed harder than Face/Off’s Sean Archer wearing the face of Castor Troy while high on ecstasy.

The year had started with Cage collecting the Best Actor Oscar for his complex portrayal of a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas. Somehow, it would end with him adopting a southern drawl and long-flowing mullet for a film about a hijacked plane full of high-risk convicts led by John Malkovich.

Taking to the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on that memorable night on March 26, it felt like Cage was heralding the start of an exciting new era.

“I just love acting,” he said as he accepted the award. “I hope that there’ll be more encouragement for alternative movies where we can experiment and fast forward into the future of acting.”

Cage had already been experimenting for quite some time by then but with mixed results.

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Eager to embrace method acting in its most extreme forms, Cage had removed his own teeth without anaesthetic for Alan Parker war drama Birdy and eaten live cockroaches on camera for the frankly bonkers A Vampire’s Kiss.

Unfortunately, all that pain had been for very little gain, critically and commercially. Initially known for playing loveable fools in films like Moonstruck and Raising Arizona, the early part of the 1990s saw Cage dabble in romcoms like Honeymoon in Vegas alongside indie fare like Wild at Heart.

Leaving Las Vegas changed everything, turning Cage into an overnight A-lister and provided commercial and critical vindication for a role that had seen him go to similar extremes.

Cage embarked on a two-week binge-drinking trip to Dublin to prepare for the part, boozing to the point of oblivion while a friend filmed his antics for him to watch back later – preferably once the hangover had cleared up – in order to perfect the speech and mannerisms of an alcoholic.

He also spent time in hospital with long-suffering alcoholics, learning more about the complexities of the disease. A physically and mentally exhausting process, the hard work ultimately translated into the most lauded performance of Cage’s career.

To borrow James Cameron’s Titanic parlance, Cage was the “King of the World” and riding on the crest of a wave, decided to bring his unique brand of crazy to the world of big-budget action cinema. His career would never be the same again.

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Nicolas Cage in The Rock

The Father: The Rock

In truth, Cage could not have picked a better film to pop his action movie cherry with than The Rock.

It put him in the capable hands of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Hollywood’s twin masters of the “high concept” – a type of film centred around a striking and easily communicable “what if” premise that could be easily relayed.

The Rock was certainly that, centring on a crack Navy SEAL team tasked with taking down a group of rogue marines holding hostages in Alcatraz prison and threatening to unleash chemical weapons on nearby San Francisco.

Simpson and Bruckheimer had form when it came to creating action stars, having transformed the fortunes of Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy with their big and brash movies Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop. It helped that The Rock had a role tailor-made for Cage’s slightly more awkward persona.

For much of the first part of Cage’s career, he had been repeatedly told he was “too quirky” to headline an action movie. It was a reasonable assessment, given that the genre was dominated by musclebound heroes and martial artists at the time – but it was about to change.

In The Rock’s Dr Stanley Goodspeed, Cage found a character that allowed him to lean into his quirky demeanor as the film’s nervy FBI chemical weapons expert, brought along for the ride and suddenly thrust into the action when plans go awry.

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Cage’s prospects were further boosted by the presence of Michael Bay as director. Bay had turned Will Smith and Martin Lawrence into action stars with his surprise debut hit Bad Boys and brought more of his now trademark “Bayhem” to the big screen with The Rock.

It’s loud, brash and unrelenting. Yet, miraculously, it’s also brilliantly entertaining, clever and surprisingly coherent, which is especially impressive given the production’s messy history.

The part of Goodspeed had been first offered to Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he had turned it down amid concerns over the script. He wasn’t alone. The Rock underwent multiple rewrites, with everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Aaron Sorkin lending a hand as uncredited script doctors.

By the time filming commenced, Bay was left with a bare bones script and turned to his cast to help flesh out much of the plot and character motivations. This proved the making of Cage.

While Ed Harris worked tirelessly to iron out the kinks in his central villain, decorated military hero turned vengeful domestic terrorist, General Frank Hummel, Sean Connery retooled his retired SAS Alcatraz escapee John Mason into a world-weary James Bond stand-in.

Going up alongside two Hollywood heavyweights, Cage channelled his inner geek for the role of Goodspeed. Taking a leaf out of Eddie Murphy’s page, who famously improvised most of the gags in Beverly Hills Cop, Cage infused Goodspeed with more comedic undertones, ad-libbing the majority of his lines with quips and neat character touches like an aversion to swearing and love of vinyl.

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read more: The Rock and Its Bizarre Link to the Iraq War

In a very serious action movie with a very silly central premise, Cage’s relative restrained performance served as a light-hearted counterbalance to the more dramatic Connery and Harris.

The Rock cleaned up at the box office and Cage won over audiences and studios executives alike. He had shown himself a versatile performer and had even managed to get a little of his trademark eccentricities into his first mainstream blockbuster. He had proven himself with an understated star turn. Now he was ready to let the bunny out of the box.

Nicolas Cage in Con Air

The Son: Con Air

Con Air shares much of its DNA with The Rock, helped by the presence of Bruckheimer as producer, the same high concept feel and an equally chaotic shoot.

Don Simpson had relinquished his ties to the project months prior to his death from a drug overdose, having decided the film’s central conceit was a little too bombastic even for him.

It was certainly high concept, with the plot concerning a prisoner transport plane which gets hijacked by its high-risk cargo of convicts – “the worst of the worst” – forcing a newly paroled ex-con onboard to fight back.

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Cast in the role of the parolee hero Cameron Poe, Cage took every opportunity to crank up the crazy, adopting a distinctive southern accent, an eye-catching mane of long flowing hair and an appreciation of white vest and denim jeans combos.

Even so, he was positively low-key compared with the film’s colorful array of convicts – characters that were borderline offensive way back in 1997 and have probably crossed a few lines since. 

While the likes of Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi and Danny Trejo put in brilliantly big and brash performances, it’s John Malkovich who steals the show as ringleader Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, “39 years old and 25 of them spent in our institutions” as John Cusack’s US marshal Vince Larkin tells us.

Not that Malkovich is up for talking about Con Air anytime soon. Director Simon West – best known for helming the music video for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” – retained Bay’s glossy style but struggled to juggle egos and executives on set.

read more: Con Air is an Unmatched ’90s Action Movie

Malkovich cut a particularly frustrated figure, with the near-daily script changes and studio interference leaving him in the dark as to how the film would pan out. Cusack was said to be similarly dispirited by goings-on on the film.

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Cage, by contrast, saw Con Air as an opportunity to “fast-forward into the future of acting”. Emboldened by his experience on The Rock, Cage he was an enthusiastic and heavily-involved presence on Con Air from the off.

It was Cage who came up with the idea of Poe being a former US Ranger, pitching the concept to West during their first meeting. West created Con Air’s memorable flashback opening sequence and the glorious back and forth letters montage with his daughter.

Cage was also adamant that Poe should be a Southerner, arguing that they “have a strong sense of chivalry when it comes to women”, and even spent time in Alabama perfecting his accent. He grew his hair long, got in serious shape, did most of his own stunts and even worked out between takes.

And the stuffed rabbit he brings home from prison for his daughter? That was Cage’s idea too.

“The whole bunny thing was mine,” he explained. “I wanted that to be symbolic of all the pain and loss he had gone through just for protecting his pregnant wife – protecting her too well, and getting thrown into prison.”

Con Air could so easily have crashed and burned were it not for Cage’s efforts. It was the film where he truly arrived as a leading man, guiding a fraught big-budget production to an impressive $224 million worldwide box-office total and bringing the Cage crazy in spades.

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It ended 1997 as one of the top 20 highest-grossing films, but it wasn’t the highest-grossing Cage film of that year though…

Nicolas Cage in Face/Off

The Holy Spirit: Face/Off

If Cage took flight as a bona fide action star with Con Air, Face/Off sent him into the stratosphere. Originally written with Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in mind back in the early 1990s, the project only got going a few years later once John Woo signed up to direct – and thank Castor Troy he did.

One of the greatest action directors of his era, Woo made his name directing Chow Yun Fat in Hong Kong action epics like The Killer and Hard Boiled. Yet when it came time to his shot at Hollywood stardom, Woo found himself shooting blanks when his first two movies, Hard Target and Broken Arrow, failed to ignite.

Face/Off changed all of that. Handed free reign, Woo altered the script to move it from a futuristic setting to a contemporary one while replacing Sly and Arnie with Cage and John Travolta.

Still riding high from the success of Pulp Fiction, Travolta had previously worked with Woo on Broken Arrow and didn’t need much convincing to sign on again. For Cage, Face/Off represented a chance to take his experiences on The Rock and Con Air to the next level under a director whose attention to detail was matched only by his penchant for bringing mesmerising gunplay to life on the screen.

“The first time I saw a couple of John Woo movies, it was like an epiphany went off in my mind,” Cage told one interviewer. “This man had taken violence and turned it into a ballet.”

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Not that Cage was without his own concerns. For one thing, he was worried about playing a villain for the first time. Until, of course, someone explained he would be playing the hero. Or, rather, both.

read more: Face/Off is Still the Craziest Action Movie of its Era

It was an understandable mistake, given Face/Off’s tangled plot about an FBI agent undergoing facial transplant surgery to assume the identity of a terrorist who has hidden a bomb somewhere in the city. To put it simply, Cage would be playing FBI hero Sean Archer, with the face of criminal psychopath Castor Troy but the mind of Archer, pretending to be Troy.

That kind of crazed acting challenge might have left some stumped but Cage was in his element yet again, immersing himself in a role that finally allowed him to go for broke on the biggest and loudest stage of them all.

His preparations were as methodical as ever, with Cage spending two weeks living with Travolta prior to filming, studying his opposite number to perfect everything from specific gestures to vocal cadences.

A prototype version of Cage’s Nouveau Shamanic style also came into play. While Travolta regularly laughed and joked around on set between takes, Cage withdrew within himself, working himself into a deranged state to deliver scenes as Castor Troy, planting bombs while dressed as a priest, and then later as Sean Archer with Castor’s face, instigating a prison riot.

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Alongside the intensive Method acting came the usual dedication: Cage took part in stunts, braved an increasingly cold and flu-ridden prison set and even laughed off his own fear of heights. It was a performance he would later describe as a “real personal best”, adding, “I got to get way outside the box.”

Cage’s mad mastery could well have been overlooked were it not for the efforts of Travolta and Woo, of course. The Hong Kong director’s eye for a striking and distinctive action sequence brought audiences shootouts in churches, airports and aboard duelling speedboats, occasionally soundtracked by “Over the Rainbow”, while Travolta’s slightly more sedate approach made for a cool contrast.

Face/Off’s success signalled the end of a crazy two-year period in Cage’s career – but it wasn’t one fans would be forgetting anytime soon.

Cage had started 1996 as an eccentric Oscar winner with ambitions of becoming a blockbuster star. By the start of 1998, he had succeeded in recalibrating action cinema away from the meatheads and the Kung Fu kicks towards something that prioritised dramatic performance over athleticism.

The cult of Cage was crystalized, with the man himself ready to take his craft forward into a strange new future. But, in truth, this would be as good as it got for Cage. A selection of ill-advised attempts at expanding his action repertoire followed with mediocre efforts like Snake Eyes, 8mm, and Gone In 60 Seconds all failed to hit the same heights as the Holy Trinity.

Though Cage garnered plenty of positive reviews for films like Adaptation, as the next two decades progressed, he increasingly evolved into a hollow pastiche of his former self. Hindered by ill-advised investments both personal and financial, Cage went from being a careful custodian of his craft to a gun for hire, appearing in eight films of varying quality in 2018 alone.

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But every once in a while, he takes us back with films like Mandy, serving as a reminder of the incredible star and actor who took on the Hollywood tough guys and won.

And whatever happens, fans will continue to pray at the altar of Nicolas Cage’s Holy Trinity – a pinnacle of action filmmaking and performance that resonates with audiences even today.

Check out our list of the best action movies available to watch on Netflix.