— Nicolas Cage loves nothing better than to attack a role like he’s wrestling a rabid polar bear. It’s both his greatest asset and his worst liability. And with Cage returning to movie screens July 14 as heroic wizard Balthazar Blake in Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the same question that’s dogged his career for years pops up again: Just how far over the top will he go this time? Will Cage’s brand of crazy raise the whole movie up to a new level, or crash and burn?
It’s not a stretch to say that Cage is one of the most successful actors of his generation. He won over critics and picked up an Oscar for his harrowing performance in “Leaving Las Vegas,” with another well-deserved nomination for “Adaptation.”
Throughout his career, he’s been careful to keep one foot in the very different worlds of low-budget oddball indie films and Hollywood blockbusters focused on shouting, shooting and blowing things up. Born into one of filmmaking’s most talented dynasties — he shares his birth name with Francis Ford Coppola, his uncle — Cage insisted on taking a stage name so he could earn his way up the ranks without trading on his famous family roots. He’s a proven box-office draw who can count eight films that made more than $100 million.
It takes a rare talent to be simultaneously one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors and most spectacularly eccentric hams — you have to be quite good to get away with sometimes being very bad. Like Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper before him, Cage’s excesses sometimes achieve a heightened majesty that a more “normal” approach could never reach.
The risk of a loose cannon
But it’s risky. Cage makes a great loose cannon, but the thing about loose cannons is sometimes they blow a hole in the side of the ship. There are plenty of ripely cheesy stinkers on that list — arguably more misses than hits: “Ghost Rider,” “Face/Off,” “Snake Eyes,” “Bangkok Dangerous,” and scraping the barrel, the unintentionally hilarious excesses of his “Wicker Man” remake, clips of which have spawned a cult following on YouTube — for all the wrong reasons. Without just the right chemistry making up the rest of the movie, Cage’s volatility can blow up in everyone’s faces.
Cage throws himself into his performances with legendary intensity, on and off screen. In 1988’s “Vampire’s Kiss,” he was so committed to showing his character’s descent into insanity that he ate live roaches. And the Elvis obsession that helped fuel his incandescently gonzo role in “Wild At Heart” kept going full-steam in his private life to the point where he actually got married to the King’s daughter.
He’s proven he can play quiet roles excellently in movies like “Birdy” and “Guarding Tess,” but Cage’s real ace is the way he fearlessly sticks his neck out, a go-for-broke willingness to get completely nuts.
The problem, even for Cage fans, is that Cage’s greatest acting asset also makes it very difficult to judge beforehand whether you’re buying a ticket for 90 minutes of sublime weirdness or incoherent nonsense. Over the last decade, this has only become even more difficult.
In his early career, Cage balanced his over-the-top work in movies like “Vampire’s Kiss,” “Raising Arizona” and “Moonstruck” (all three among his very best) with dialed-down performances in “Birdy,” “Red Rock West” and “Tess.”
Winning the Oscar for the dark, dour drama “Leaving Las Vegas” changed all that — ironically enough, by making him a big enough name to attract the attention of uber-action producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who put Cage in central roles in two of the '90s better popcorn shoot-’em-ups, “The Rock” and “Con Air.”
In both movies, Cage is actually an oasis of relative calm, leaving the scenery chewing to the likes of Sean Connery and John Malkovich. But once he was in the box-office big leagues, Cage embraced the opportunity to bring his singularly forceful style from the unconventional indie films into the mainstream, albeit all too often in movies that cranked up the testosterone and adrenalin without offering much else.
Cage himself doesn’t see this as a problem, nor should he, really. In recent interviews, he’s rightly pointed out that if there’s room for the surreal in the art of Picasso or Van Gogh, there ought to be in acting too. It’s just too bad Cage’s talents often wind up in junk like “Ghost Rider.” But his track record with Bruckheimer is pretty decent — and “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” also reteams him with director Jon Turteltaub, with whom he made the guilty-pleasure “National Treasure” thrillers. Here’s hoping Cage’s wizard will find the magic this time too.