How good an actor is Nicolas Cage?

We try to solve the Zen koan that is Nicolas Cage

Article by Ross McIndoe | 04 Oct 2018

These days he’s more meme than man. His internet infamy looms larger than his fame as an actor: the Wicker Man GIFs, the vampirical conspiracy theories, the face photoshopped across half the internet. Even those who recognise him from the big screen are likely to know him only as a paycheck-grabbing blockbuster ham.

But he has a best actor Oscar. He also convinced Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and the Coen brothers to build films around him. He also drew rave reviews from “serious critics” for Adaptation and Leaving Las Vegas and Bringing out the Dead, while simultaneously enshrining himself in action cinema legend with Con Air, Kick-Ass, Face/Off and The Rock.

In everything he does, Cage has always seemed to be at once too real and too absurd for reality.

He used the paychecks from forgettable films to buy a couple of castles, a haunted house and a stolen Mongolian dinosaur skull. He met the filmmakers behind Ghost Rider for the first time and persuaded them to hop a graveyard fence in the middle of the night. On set, they had to cover up his Ghost Rider tattoo. He almost starred in Tim Burton’s take on Superman then gave his son the name Kal-El to honour the Kryptonian hero. His other son is named after the lead singer of a black metal band.

Born Nicolas Kim Coppola, he jettisoned one of the most fabled names in American cinema and replaced it with “Cage”, taking inspiration half from legendary composer and Zen Buddhist scholar John Cage — a man synonymous with tearing up rules and screwing with structures —and half from Marvel’s Luke Cage, an oversized superhero with a good heart and bulletproof skin. They say that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them: Cage told us right up front that he was a comic book character who lived on the line between genius and madness.

As an actor, he is a walking, wild-eyed Zen koan: wilfully incomprehensible, every answer slipping further from grasp the more you strain to understand him.

So how good an actor is Nicolas Cage? Maybe the best way to answer that is to stop asking. To sit down, shut up, and let Cage-a-rama 2: Cage Uncaged wash straight through your brain and into your bloodstream. Courtesy of Matchbox Cineclub, Europe’s biggest Nicolas Cage-based film festival returns this January to deliver another dose of pure, unadulterated Cage.

Since he has been putting out two to four films a year since the late 80s, curating a festival from Cage’s filmography presents a real challenge. Cage-a-rama strikes a balance by picking films from all through his timeline, mixing Cage classics like Wild at Heart with recent hits like Mom & Dad and Mandy, straight-to-video oddities like Zandalee and Army of One, and majestic misfires like The Wicker Man.

One thing the line-up highlights is that Cage has never had a bona fide dry spell. Over the years, his reputation has fluctuated like a cardiogram reading from the Wicker Man set, but he’s made great movies all through. In 2009, even as he appeared to be banging nail after nail into his critical coffin with Knowing, G-Force and Astro Boy all dropping in the same calendar year, he also anchored Werner Herzog’s dementedly brilliant Bad Lieutenant remake. We might perceive peaks and troughs in his career, bad runs and resurgences, but the evidence is that, to Cage, it’s all the same.

In good times and in bad, in good films and in bad, he just keeps on Cageing.

Mandy is released 12 Oct by Park Circus; Cage-a-rama 2: Cage Uncaged takes place 5-6 Jan, CCA, Glasgow