#11: Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Oscar night comes early to 30 Days of Nic Cage. At last, it’s time to watch the film that won him his only Academy Award: perky fish-out-of-water comedy Leaving Las Vegas, in which Cage stars as a hard-working but frumpy FBI agent who must pose as a beauty pageant contestant in order to - wait, that’s a nightmare version of Miss Congeniality. My apologies.
In reality, Leaving Las Vegas is monumentally grim. Having lost his family and his job, Ben (Cage) sets fire to all his non-alcoholic possessions and drives to Las Vegas to, in his own famous words, drink himself to death. In Vegas he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), and the two begin an unexpected relationship, with the promise that neither one will try to change or judge the other: him for his alcoholism, her for being a prostitute.
Leaving Las Vegas is excellent, but it is not an easy film to watch, and certainly not for anybody only in search of happy endings. As for that Best Actor Oscar: yes, it’s well deserved. This is Goldilocks Cage, neither too hot nor too cold: his acting is passionate but focused; not safe, but not delving into embarrassing bombast either. Instead, Cage’s performance is profoundly affecting, giving Ben the doomed humanity befitting a modern tragedy. Occasionally, we see flickers of the wit, humour and intelligence that the character held in happier days, and which still compel Sera to let him into her life, and when they fade behind his glassy eyes we share his despair. Shue is just as good, if not better, and why she has since faded from the film landscape is a mystery to me.
Having proved he was capable of great things, Cage promptly left Las Vegas for Planet Bruckheimer. Sic transit gloria Nicki. Welcome to the age of Action Cage.
#10: Guarding Tess (1994)
Today is a milestone for 30 Days of Cage: with film #10, we’re already a third of the way through the marathon. Only 20 more to go! Time to crack open a bottle of champagne or a hive of bees to celebrate.
Unfortunately, #10 is not a film worth celebrating. Guarding Tess is a limp comedy in which Nicolas Cage plays a secret service agent tasked with protecting a former First Lady, played by Shirley McLaine. Cage’s character, henceforth known as Secret Cagent because I’ve forgotten his name, hates Tess because she’s a cantankerous recluse who calls him “a good boy”. After a lot of boring bickering over golf balls, they eventually bond over their shared loneliness. Tess is lonely because everyone in her family is dead or evil, and because she has an inoperable brain tumour, and because she desperately misses the golden days of her dead husband’s presidency even though he cheated on her all the time. Secret Cagent is lonely because his wife left him and because he’s an unlovable jerk with no sense of humour. Poor Richard Griffiths is also present, for indiscernible reasons, as his character appears to be a Rolf Harris impersonator.
Guarding Tess fails because Cage is not at all suited to this sort of gentle comedy. Grumpy looks and exasperated sighs don’t cut it for him: he needs the space to move around and scream and dribble and break things. At one point, Secret Cagent shoots a man in the toe, but ideally he should be playing ping-pong with that toe, or performing witchcraft, or maybe chewing on the guy’s knees. Admittedly, your nan would probably prefer this film to, say, Vampire’s Kiss, but I don’t, and I’ve got better taste.
(Nan Tangent: if you do have a cool, Vampire’s Kiss-loving nan, please comment and let me know, and maybe I’ll start a new feature called Nic Fan Nans. Bonus points if she’s got a Cage-related tattoo. Alternatively, that might just be me in 60 years.)
#9: Deadfall (1993)
Sometimes it’s the smaller roles that leave the biggest impressions. Take abysmal crime drama Deadfall, which blandly stars Michael Biehn as con man Joe. One night Joe accidentally shoots his dad, who cryptically orders him to recover some stolen cake from his estranged uncle, and so Joe sets out to find his uncle and avenge his old man’s stolen cake. Yes, it’s as stupid as it sounds. Deadfall is a confusing, poorly-acted mess, and seeing it is not something I’d recommend to anybody unless they intentionally watch things like Battlefield Earth, either because of terrible taste or an extreme tolerance for total crap. However, one factor drags it from forgettable film limbo into all-out, soul-crushing, brain-splitting Movie Hell: Nicolas Cage.
Cage plays Eddie, a fellow con man with poor social skills and an Alan Partridge toupee. Deadfall was written and directed by Cage’s brother Christopher Coppola, who must have given our hero absolute freedom to do whatever he wanted, as it seems impossible that Cage’s acting in this film was in any way directed or restrained. It is difficult to capture Cage’s performance in words, or to capture his words in words, as everything the character says is hurled from his dribbling lips in an incomprehensible slurred yowl. In one memorable scene, Eddie suspects his girlfriend is cheating on him: tongue lolling out, he blubbers like a toddler, then begins humping her bed in a tearful frenzy. “Whaddami a fuggayretardman? Amiyafuggayretardaaaaaaargh?” he screams. “I know what this is! Lou tryina snuffmiuf becazaviz greezi wiwa nevyu wee you wagh. Well veela vuggay vrez, man!”
Sadly, Cage’s character has a deadly encounter with a deep fat fryer about an hour into Deadfall, depriving us and him of the chance to top Vampire’s Kiss. The remainder of the film is far less entertaining, albeit increasingly surreal. First, Charlie Sheen makes a brief appearance as a sinister pool player and goatee enthusiast called Fats. It is then revealed that Fats works for a diamond-loving baddie called Dr Lyme who dresses like Dr Evil and has - yes, seriously - a robot lobster claw for a hand. Finally, it is revealed that Joe’s dad faked his own death so he could manipulate Joe into tracking down his uncle and teaming up with him but not shooting him with the fake gun so he would instead be shot by a real gun, which seems both convoluted and improbable. I did not anticipate this shocking twist, mainly because the utter tediousness of Deadfall, now unpunctuated by Cage’s tantrums, easily lulled me to sleep.
I’ll admit it: this film would be greatly improved by helicopters.
#8: Wild At Heart (1990)
Although both films came out in 1990, it doesn’t take long to work out that Wild At Heart is no Fire Birds. For one, Cage’s character sports the rather unique name of Sailor Ripley. Then there’s the opening scene, in which Sailor smashes another man into a bloody paste, accompanied by the music of thrash-metal group Powermad and the screams of Laura Dern. Several years later, Sailor is released from prison and promptly breaks parole to drive to California with his sweetheart Lula (Dern) and his beloved snakeskin jacket, a garment worryingly sourced from Cage’s own wardrobe. Lula’s deranged mother, meanwhile, hires a series of bizarre hitmen to take out Sailor and bring her daughter home.
The film looks utterly fantastic, and the road trip provides a relatively accessible look into Lynch’s weird America. Cage, generally at his best when playing violent, idiosyncratic nutters, is well-cast as Sailor Ripley, and the scenes where he serenades Lula with Elvis are surprisingly good. Unfortunately, snakeskin jacket aside, Cage spends a lot of the film wearing way less clothing than my eyes would ever recommend; hopefully tomorrow he plays a nun or an astronaut. However, this is more than made up for by the character’s truly inspirational style of dancing, which primarily involves kicking invisible giraffes in the face. Adding these moves to your repertoire is certain to liven up your next work Christmas party.
While Cage is good, the real stand-outs here are Diane Ladd, as Lula’s hysteria-driven mother Marietta, and Willem Dafoe, whose Bobby Peru reaches horrible levels of hide-behind-the-couch creepiness. After finishing Wild At Heart, I turned on the television in search of something fluffier; instead I was confronted with one of his Birds Eye polar bear adverts, which now make me want to bleach my ears and cry inconsolably. I am never touching frozen peas ever again.
#7: Fire Birds (1990)
Fire Birds is a film about helicopters. Helicopters flying, helicopters shooting missiles, helicopters exploding. Helicopters flying into and out of sunsets. Terrible helicopter double entendres. Fire Birds has made me hate helicopters.
In Fire Birds, a group of American pilots are given a mission to destroy an unnamed drug cartel. We are repeatedly told that the cartel is based in South America, although the film refuses to specify which country. Instead, the cast fly across “Catamarca Desert, South America” and discuss the helplessness of “our South American allies”. Catamarca, for the record, is a province of Argentina, but either the country refused to be associated with this idiotic film or Fire Birds is aimed at people who don’t know where or what Argentina is. Rather hilariously, every single effort made by South America and Good Old Freedom America to bust the cartel has been foiled by one bearded mercenary named Stoller, a man so evil that he received his helicopter training in North Korea, so it’s up to our ragtag group of rookies to take him down. Aside from a few unlucky targets for Stoller in the opening sequence, there are no actual South Americans in this film, despite much of the action taking place in South America.
They should consider their absence lucky: Fire Birds plays out like the clichéd writings of a fourteen-year-old boy who watched Top Gun a hundred times. Nic Cage’s Jake Preston is a smug young hot-shot pilot who, everyone is eternally compelled to remind us, is totally brilliant. Tommy Lee Jones plays his gruff instructor, who only pushes him too hard because Cage reminds him of his younger self, while a love interest is provided by the unceasingly wooden Sean Young, as a cute female pilot who laughs like Tommy Wiseau. There’s a training montage in which Cage repeatedly screams, “I am the greatest!” There’s an awful love scene set to Phil Collins. The film’s dialogue consists solely of dogfight gibberish like “Heads up, mad turtle on your eleven!” and endless variants of “He’s on our ass!” and “That kid can fly!”, although its lowest point comes when Cage’s character is described as “a first class all-American hero with his heart and brain wired together cooking full tilt boogie for freedom and justice”.
Overall, Fire Birds is unremittingly dreadful, the sort of obnoxious good-old-American-guns-‘n’-courage film that makes me want to take up flag-burning as a hobby. Cage is bad, but I was so distracted by the overwhelming terribleness of the entire movie to give him any special notice. At the time, I suppose, his participation in Fire Birds may have been seen only as an unfortunate misfire, a misadventure into brainless action schlock. 1990 had no idea what was to come.
#6: Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
I pressed play on Vampire’s Kiss expecting to put an end to the run of decent Nic Cage films. Now that the credits have rolled, I can’t say if what I watched was at all decent, but it was definitely the most fun I’ve had so far. Raising Arizona couldn’t make me laugh as hard as I did at Vampire’s Kiss. Birdy couldn’t make me cry, but as I watched Cage eagerly don plastic vampire teeth and crawl down a New York street, tears of happiness welled up in my eyes. So, foiled again. Damn you, Cage! Oh, hell, I can’t stay mad. I’m still laughing too hard.
In Vampire’s Kiss, Cage plays an unlikeable yuppie nutter in the vein of Patrick Bateman, who, after a late-night encounter with pointy-toothed Jennifer Beals, transforms into the must hateable vampire since Edward Cullen. Immediately the film descends into chaos, with Cage figuratively and literally gnawing on the scenery, leaping on desks, screaming the alphabet and devouring cockroaches and pigeons.
If you enjoy over-the-top Crazy Cage, Vampire’s Kiss is your holy grail. There’s enough lunacy here to fill five Face/Offs. Throughout the film, Cage slips in and out of a bizarre accent vaguely reminiscent of The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy and Derek Zoolander. “Me vampire! Vampire, you idiot! Nosferatu!” he screams at some confused chuchgoers, then wanders aimlessly down the street, wailing and gurning like a castrated moose.
If Vampire’s Kiss tries to make any points about the nature of love, or sanity, or work, or anything at all, it fails. If that matters to you, then don’t watch it. If, however, you want nothing more than 100 minutes of Nicolas Cage screaming, breaking things and gnashing his plastic teeth, then this is utterly glorious.
#5: Moonstruck (1987)
Ordinarily I probably would not watch a romantic comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Cher, but therein lies the magic of 30 Days of Nic Cage.
In Moonstruck, unusually hot accountant Cher gets engaged to the bland but cheerful Johnny, then immediately falls for his opera-loving baker brother Donny, played by Cage. She agonises, he pleads, a bunch of lively old coots teach her some lessons about life, and inevitably love conquers all to the sound of joyous accordion music. Even after Valley Girl and Peggy Sue Got Married, it’s still strange seeing Cage in a rom-com; aside from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, romance is a genre he leaves well alone after the eighties. This is probably for the best, since every time he starts declaring his love for a woman I expect him to punch her in the face and steal her bear suit.
Admittedly, Cage has good chemistry with Cher - a line I never thought I’d type, so thank you once again, 30 Day Challenge - but his character is one-dimensional and, aside from an early bread-smashing tantrum, rather boring. Then again, it’s Cher’s film, not his. He could have spent the entire 102 minutes shoving breadsticks up his nose and she’d still be winning Oscars and acolytes. Breadsticks or not, Moonstruck remains an enjoyable comedy.
So far, the journey has been unexpectedly tolerable, but tomorrow is Vampire’s Kiss, and probably the end of Cage’s winning streak. I have to admit I’m excited. Bring on the hysterics!
#4: Raising Arizona (1987)
This is the one where Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter steal a baby.
Raising Arizona was probably the first Nicolas Cage film I ever saw: my parents rented it for me when I was a kid, and I remembered it fondly. Twelve years on, I’ve become the sort of person who’s happy to watch The Big Lebowski several times a year, so I still enjoyed Raising Arizona, although I haven’t got too much to say about it. Unsurprisingly for a Coen brothers comedy, the plot follows a collection of small-time screwups and misfits as they try witlessly to outwit each other, with plenty of clever lines, a handful of yodels and a pinch of unusually violent deaths. Cage continues to be good, although naysayers could attribute that to the excellent script - but at this point I’d like to point out that Kevin Costner nearly got the role instead, and if you think that sounds like an improvement then I don’t know what to tell you. Go start your own crazy stalker blog.
HairWatch update: thankfully less blond and pompadoured, but joined by a worrying moustache and, briefly, some frightening sideburns.
#3: Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Sad news, friends and readers. I had originally intended to watch The Boy in Blue, in which Cage plays a 19th century Canadian rower named Ned Hanlan, who, IMDb informs me, “was one of the first scullers to successfully utilize the ‘sliding seat.’” Riveting as that sounds, 19th century rower biopics are not especially popular, so nobody in town seems to stock The Boy in Blue. There’ll be an extra film from the reject list later to make up for it. For now, I’m moving straight on to Peggy Sue Got Married.
Peggy Sue, played by Kathleen Turner, travels back in time from her high school reunion to relive the days before her eighteenth birthday. Cage, promisingly, plays a character called “Crazy Charlie the Appliance King”, her soon-to-be ex-husband and high school boyfriend. I am happy to report that Cage’s hair is even worse than it was in Birdy, as throughout the film, he sports an inexplicable blond pompadour. When he opens his mouth and the golden quiff is joined by fake teeth and a bizarre Pee-Wee Herman voice, he resembles a rejected Muppet.
Somehow, though, it works, and awkward but earnest Charlie is actually oddly endearing. When Peggy dumps him for her pretentious crush Michael it’s hard not to feel a little bad for the guy - although none of his lines can compete with Michael’s “I’m going to check out of this bourgeois motel, push myself from the dinner table and say, ‘No more Jell-O for me, mom!’” Dreamy.
Interesting fact: in 2008, Cage sued Turner after her autobiography accused him of stealing a chihuahua during filming. Even if the story isn’t true, isn’t it a brilliant mental image?
#2: Birdy (1984)
One year after Valley Girl, Cage has worked his way up from teenage silliness to Sundance. An initial glance at Birdy’s plot summary left me wary: Cage plays battle-scarred ‘Nam vet Al, who struggles to coax his best friend out of a breakdown which has left him believing he is actually a bird. Visions of cage throwing melodramatic PTSD meltdowns and punching birds immediately danced before my eyes. Furthermore, by not playing the birdman himself, he was potentially depriving us of some truly excellent animated gifs.
Turns out my fears were unfounded. Birdy is actually pretty damn good, and so is Cage, who more than holds his own opposite Matthew Modine’s excellent birdman. Al’s heartbreaking monologue at the film’s climax proves there’s a lot more in his acting arsenal than chewing blockbuster scenery.
For viewers who refuse to be entertained by anyone other than Crazy Nic, there is a scene where he and Modine wear suits made entirely from pigeon feathers, which I immediately screencapped. Also, his hair looks stupid, but that’s really all the bile I can muster about him today. Birdy may have transformed me into a Cage optimist. Maybe the guy is just misunderstood. Or maybe I’m crazier than the birdman.