Two years ago I saw Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and really didn’t like much of what I had seen. Some critics were hailing it as the ultimate Nicolas Cage experience, in so many words, so I figured maybe he had turned a corner in his career. But what I saw back then was more of the same nonsense. Cage was completely unhinged as a drug-addicted psychopath with a badge, spouting dialogue in some manic, uneven cadence and acting all types of crazy. The bastard had lost it, in my opinion. But looking back on the film now, I feel like I would have a different perspective on his performance and, thus, a different grade on the film itself. Because Nicolas Cage knows what he is doing when he makes these pictures. You cannot tell me he only gets sent scripts for films like Season of the Witch, or Bangkok Dangerous, or Ghost Rider, without the occasional brilliant screenplay mixed in. This is a man who turned arguably the finest performance of the nineties in Leaving Las Vegas and began the 2000s with a brilliant performance as two people in Adaptation. I know he gets scripts that are full of depth and emotion and with well-written characters amid what will be good films; films that will at least be discussed at Oscar time.
Sure, every once in a while Cage will try his hand at something serious, or something that could at least be considered sane. He was brilliant but overlooked in The Weather Man, as he was in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men. But those films are long gone now. They aren’t the films everyone thinks about when they think of Cage. They think of the Disneyed up National Treasure films, of Ghost Rider and its upcoming sequel, of Knowing, of The Wicker Man remake. These films are, without question, atrocious (except for Knowing, to me anyway). But look closer, look back at Cage in these films. Have you ever seen a performance so dedicated and so energized in such a bad film before? Cage is a bright individual, at a very basic level at least. He has eyes, and ears, and can process information, which is all you need to realize The Wicker Man remake is the very definition of “so bad it’s good.” So, again, Cage must be completely self aware of what he is doing, and so that gives him the freedom to go into these films without regard for what they become, or what becomes of him.
Consider Cage next to two other actors: Harrison Ford and Robert DeNiro. Now before you try and separate these two actors from Cage and say they are more accomplished, I would like to say DeNiro has two Oscar statues, Ford none with only one nomination. Sure, DeNiro may be the best ever, and Ford has some of the most admirable franchises in his corner, but to say that Cage is not on their level as far as prestige might be short sighted. Now think about the recent films of DeNiro and Ford, and how bored and disinterested they looked. I remember Ford in Firewall and Indiana Jones 4, where he looked tired and worked lazily through his lines. And DeNiro, fledgling along in tired films like Righteous Kill and 15 Minutes in recent years, looks like he would rather be doing anything other than what he is doing. But think about The Wicker Man for a second. Nicolas Cage had to either know beforehand or figure out in short order that he was in an awful remake with no chance at being a serious, prestigious picture. But instead of succumbing to the fact that The Wicker Man was drivel, Cage met the picture head on and carried his performance over the top. The result is an awful film, but one with self-mocking charm thanks to Cage’s idiotic energy. And that is what Cage brings to films that are clearly poor examples of anything substantial; energy, conviction, and an insane brilliance.
Nicolas Cage understands the films he is doing are what they are, not anything more and maybe sometimes a little less, so the fact that he would continue to dive head first into garbage cinema suggests that he is self aware and wants to meet the poor material with his explosive insanity and manic energy in order to make these films memorable in their own way. He is a highbrow B-movie star, an idiot savant in Hollywood. Of course this is all speculation, as nobody is in Cage’s mind but Cage himself. And if I were to imagine Cage’s mind it might be something involving Elvis, standing atop a mountain on one of Cage’s islands, wearing a Superman cape that is on fire, swinging a mace to fend off oncoming rabid unicorns being ridden by three-headed demons.
At least that’s what I see every time he tackles another ridiculous film.