The Ages of Cage: recapping Nicolas Cage's movie career in 5 distinct acts

Nicolas Cage plays himself in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

There's no actor quite like Nicolas Cage, and certainly, no other actor could take on the lead role in the surreal, meta-comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

Released in Cineworld this April, the movie casts the famously unorthodox Cage as a fictionalised version of himself. Grappling with career stagnation, divorce and debt, Nicolas Cage is also plagued by an alter-ego, 'Nick Cage', embodied by the actor's raucous Wild at Heart character, Sailor.

When he accepts a million-dollar offer to attend a fan and prospective screenwriter's birthday in Spain, Cage finds himself pulled into a surreal odyssey. The lines between actor and character become blurred when devout Cage nut Javi (a scene-stealing Pedro Pascal) embroils his idol in his new movie project.

At the same time, Cage is enlisted by two CIA agents to spy on the supposedly nefarious Javi's activities, which involves kidnapping the daughter of a prominent Spanish politician.

The storied and eccentric history of Cage's career, not to mention his tendency for outsized, outrageous performances, means he's well-positioned to laugh at himself.

The legacy of Cage runs through the heart of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, so we've decided to recap his memorable career in five distinct parts.

 

1. BREAKOUT CAGE

The Cotton Club (1984)

Francis Ford Coppola's crime drama didn't hit the heights of The Godfathers I or II, but it remains a stylish account of the eponymous Harlem jazz club, a notorious hotbed of iniquity and illegal activity.

A charismatic Richard Gere leads, to the sound of John Barry's sultry score, as mob-affiliated musician Michael 'Dixie' Dwyer. The film is also notable for giving Nicolas Cage one of his plum early roles as Michael's troubled brother, Vincent. The role capitalised on the actor's potential glimpsed in the earlier Rumble Fish, and portended even greater things to come.



Birdy (1984)

The late director Alan Parker elicited career-best performances from both Cage and Matthew Modine in this sensitive story of two men grappling with the emotional fallout from the Vietnam War.

Framed around a flashback structure, Birdy elicits a compelling chalk and cheese dynamic from its variously introverted/extroverted performances. Modine's 'Birdy', a kid who is obsessed with the notion of flight and whose obsessions lead to complications in adult life.

Scored by Peter Gabriel and highlighted by Steadicam operator Garrett Brown's revolutionary Skycam equipment during the flying sequences, it's a poignant drama that allows for a sensitive Cage performance.


Moonstruck (1987)

Cage officially hit the big time with Norman Jewison's phenomenally successful romantic comedy, set in the Brooklyn Heights area of Manhattan.

Cage plays one of two men vying for the heart of Cher's widowed central character Loretta. She is engaged to Johnny Cammareri (Danny Ailello) but soon falls for his tempestuous, hot-blooded younger brother, Ronny (Cage).

The movie's authentic, funny depiction of Italian-American idioms and neuroses propelled the movie to enormous box office success and three Oscar wins out of six nominations, including one for Cher herself. And Cage's performance was his most memorably prominent yet.


Raising Arizona (1987)

Those familiar Cage mannerisms found their natural outlet in the Coen brothers' zany kidnap comedy. It cemented the duo's surrealistic brand of farce, later exhibited in the likes of The Big Lebowski, at the same time as it elevated Cage further into the Hollywood A-list echelons. 

Cage portrays the affable convenience store robber H.I. McDunnough who partners with his police officer lover Ed (Holly Hunter) to abduct one of the four babies born to a local furniture magnate.

Needless to say, chaos ensues in the manner of a live-action Road Runner cartoon with demonic Hell's Angels bikers and lot more thrown in for good measure. Amidst scene-stealing turns from eventual Coen regulars including John Goodman, Cage's sweet chemistry with Hunter works to keep the madness grounded.

Raising Arizona is showing in Cineworld cinemas as part of our Nicolas Cage-themed CageFest on 17th April.


2. ARTHOUSE CAGE

Wild at Heart (1990)

In his one, and, so far, only, collaboration with nightmare master David Lynch, Cage delivers one of his signature roles. The portrayal of the reckless vigilante Sailor exerted such an influence on Cage's own career, not to mention our own perception of Cage's screen iconography, that he gamely lampoons it in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

Lynch's violent and menacing road trip odyssey pairs Cage with Laura Dern's Lula for a story of retribution that's both horrible and horribly funny by turns. The movie was heavily cut for its final theatrical presentation and certainly, there's a sense of Lynch pushing things to the extremes.

It says something when Cage appears subdued compared to the rampaging likes of Willem Dafoe, here chilling the blood as the perverse Bobby Peru.

Wild at Heart is showing in Cineworld cinemas as part of our Nicolas Cage-themed CageFest on 17th April.


Red Rock West (1993)

John Dahl is a master of the Americana indie road movie drama. Two years before his acclaimed neo-noir thriller The Last Seduction, Dahl delivered this story of a drifter who is mistaken for a hitman.

Red Rock West showcases an overlooked performance from Cage who again exhibits his enthusiasm for working with off-beat, independently spirited filmmakers. 


Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Cage secured his first Oscar for his devastating performance in Mike Figgis' unsparing study of alcoholism and self-destruction. In fact, in a recent Reddit AMA, Cage named Leaving Las Vegas as one of three movies he'd made that he would preserve for future generations. That's got to say something.

Leaving Las Vegas is adapted from John O'Brien's semi-autobiographical account of his struggle with drinking. Cage portrays Ben who, his life seemingly in ruins, retreats to the neon lights and tinkling slot machines of Vegas where he can anonymously drink himself to death.

Only a relationship with prostitute Sera (an equally excellent Elisabeth Shue) holds the promise of redemption, but we know from the outset that Figgis and Cage are dedicated to taking us into the abyss.

 

Adaptation (2002)

Nicolas Cage plays a bifurcated iteration of screenwriter/director Charlie Kaufman in this characteristically surreal and tricksy look at the nature of editorial ownership.

Cage is on sublime, Oscar-nominated form as Charlie Kaufman, who is struggling to adapt Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) novel The Orchard Thief, at the same time as his identical twin brother, Donald, comes to stay. The movie is tantamount to the real-life Kaufman writing the screenplay of the movie about Charlie Kaufman writing the screenplay about Charlie Kaufman writing the screenplay.

The odyssey becomes increasingly meta and complicated as the lines between reality and fantasy, real-life subject and dramatisation, become blurred. Nevertheless, it remains supremely watchable thanks to the efforts of Cage, Streep and an excellent supporting cast including an Oscar-winning Chris Cooper and Succession's Brian Cox.

Adaptation is showing in Cineworld cinemas as part of our Nicolas Cage-themed CageFest on 17th April.


3. ACTION MAN CAGE

The Rock (1996)

In an abrupt but thrilling swerve, Cage followed up his Oscar win with a full-bore launch into frenetic blockbuster cinema. It was a move that brought him untold commercial success, setting in motion a career that would balance indie accolades with box office hits.

Arguably Michael Bay's best movie, The Rock is the typically overwrought story of an imminent attack on San Francisco from the prison island of Alcatraz. Ed Harris is the surprisingly sympathetic agent of the imminent destruction but the movie belongs to the bickering heroic double-act of Sean Connery and Cage.

Their contrasting acting styles and screen histories help elevate the usual Bay hysteria into something more tangible and likeable. When The Rock proved to be a huge box office success, it secured Cage as an A-list star with commercial opportunity.

The Rock is showing in Cineworld cinemas as part of our Nicolas Cage-themed CageFest on 17th April.


Con Air (1997)

Cage pushed his action man persona even further into self-parody in Simon West's enjoyably overcooked airborne thriller. The actor plays Cameron Poe, a long-haired, drawling inmate whose imminent parole is rudely interrupted by a violent breakout on board his prison transport plane.

Cage knows exactly what kind of hogwash he's ended up in, delivering lines like "put the bunny back in the box" with a satirically heightened sense of silliness. Then again, this is a popcorn movie with a refreshingly offbeat sense of humour, as evinced by the plethora of intriguing indie actors it has loaded into the hold.

John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames and  Colm Meaney are among the actors attempting to wrestle the scenery from one another, although they can't compete with Cage's ability to run in slow-mo and materialise badass guitar licks out of thin air.


Face/Off (1997)

In his first of two collaborations with action maestro John Woo, Cage delivers one of his quintessential performances. The sky is the limit as far as Cage is concerned, who roars like a Greek God and gurns like Jim Carrey on acid in his role as the villainous Castor Troy.

Of course, that only accounts for half of Cage's performance in this gonzo action-extravaganza, which could only have emerged from a coke-fuelled, 1990s script debriefing. Cage swaps faces with his co-star John Travolta, allowing him to straddle the divide of good guy and bad guy, although the level of subtlety in both characters is comparable.

That said, there is real technical skill in how each actor absorbs the characteristics of the other. What happened to purely insane high-concept pitches like this?


Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)

Cage famously did his own stunt driving in this glossy remake of a forgotten 1970s car chase thriller (and that particular piece of trivia rears its head, hilariously, in Unbearable Weight). 

For once, Cage is blown off the screen, although not by one of his human co-stars. Instead, he cedes the spotlight to the fearsome Ford Mustang Eleanor, driven during the insane climactic car chase that almost rivals The Blues Brothers in terms of how many cop cars are destroyed.


4. LAUGHABLE CAGE

The Wicker Man (2006)

Following an acclaimed performance in Lord of War, Cage made one of his eccentric u-turns – only this time, it augured a period of bizarre, and often terrible, choices.

Cage has insisted that he takes every role in every movie very seriously. Even so, it's hard to imagine much method prep in the derided and completely unnecessary remake of the classic Brit horror The Wicker Man.

It's not clear whether we're supposed to laughing with Cage or at him as he rampages around a pagan island populated only by women. The movie is so unintentionally hilarious ("No, not the bees!") that it's inspired a whole host of memes and clip compilations, all of which point to this being an unlikely comedy as opposed to a horror film.


Next (2007)

Continuing his forgettable and mockable career phase, Cage portrays a psychic Las Vegas magician on the search for a stolen nuclear weapon in this daft action thriller.

The title of the movie practically invites the 'you've seen it all before' derision. The movie ties itself up in knots as it limits Cage's character's abilities to see into the future to just a few seconds. One imagines that the movie, which, bizarrely, showcases the otherwise excellent Julianne Moore, would be over much more swiftly otherwise.


Ghost Rider (2007)

In terms of Marvel Comics characters, Robert Downey Jr. has Iron Man, and Nicolas Cage has Ghost Rider. And that's not necessarily a good thing with the latter flaming out in the role of the demonic stunt bike rider turned hellhound Johnny Blaze.

At this stage in his career, Cage was, frankly, too old to be playing characters such as this. But it's not entirely his fault when the direction and scripting are so lackluster. Not even the presence of Easy Rider icon Peter Fonda as the Devil himself can elevate the material.


Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

A ludicrously mulleted Cage toplines this remake of a 1999 Hong Kong movie. Oddly enough, the directors of the original, the Pang brothers, chose to re-imagine their earlier movie, but it flopped both critically and commercially.

Cage portrays a Bangkok-based hitman whose personal code collapses when he bonds with a young kid and finds he can't carry out his missions. It takes a talented filmmaker to fashion authenticity out of Cage's exaggerated mannerisms, but here he seems to be playing a simulation of a human being.


5. RESURGENT CAGE

Kick-Ass (2010)

Matthew Vaughn's self-referential comic book movie is both inside and outside the joke simultaneously. It parodies the overblown conventions and lazy cliches of your standard superhero origin story at the same time that it revels in mayhem, set-pieces and unlikely super-powers.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays the eponymous Kick-Ass, an ordinary guy with severed nerve endings who becomes his neighbourhood's local saviour. However, the show is stolen by the bizarre and foul-mouthed double-act of Chloe Grace Moretz and Nicolas Cage as the father-daughter duo of Big Daddy and Hit Girl.

For once, Cage's affected mannerisms make absolute sense relative to the outsized parameters of the drama. His Adam West-inflected mannerisms strike an appropriately knowing note and his departure from the movie is a cacophonous mixture of the horrific and the satirical, something only Cage could pull off.


Joe (2014)

In this gritty backwoods drama, Cage makes for a compelling double-act with Tye Sheridan, now a confirmed star in his own right.

David Gordon Green's well-received indie drama is adapted from the 1991 Larry Brown novel of the same name. Cage plays the eponymous loner Joe who hires Sheridan's character Gary for labour, in the process vowing to protect him from his abusive father Wade (a truly scary Gary Poulter).

It's a stirring reminder that Cage is more than capable of playing down-to-earth, plausible characters when he puts his mind to it.

 

Mandy (2018)

Cage is a force of nature in this nightmarish, phantasmagorical tale of vengeance. Directed by cult filmmaker Panos Cosmatos, Mandy apes the feeling of a fairy tale, tracing a line from bucolic innocence into brooding, violent despair and rage.

When his girlfriend, the eponymous Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is kidnapped by a gang of cult psychopaths (led by a creepy Linus Roache), Cage's rampaging loner breaks out the power tools and his arsenal of grunts to bring retribution to their doorstep.

It's one of Cage's most knowingly ludicrous performances, the keening, bug-eyed nature of his portrayal meshing perfectly with the surrealistic tableaux of the movie. Who needs understatement when you've got a chainsaw to hand?


Pig (2021)

Cage's most affecting performance in years came in this oddball odyssey. It's called Pig, but really the movie uses the concept of a kidnapped porcine sidekick to explore the fundamental loneliness of its central character.

Cage portays an ostracised former chef who has taken to living in the wilds outside of Portland, Oregon. When his beloved truffle pig is kidnapped, it compels Cage's character to return to society and grapple with what he's left behind.

The end results are strange, riveting and genuinely moving as Cage dials down his usual excesses to depict a fallible, flawed human being.


The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

Nic Cage has always reveled in knowingly silly performances, and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent takes it to the nth degree by allowing the actor to play himself.

Cage is game for anything in this madcap comedy from writer/director Tom Gormican, one that absorbs all manner of classic Cage iconography before twisting it for memorable comic ends. Rest assured, you won't look at the golden pistols from Face/Off in the same way again.

At the same time, the movie allows Cage to interrogate his own artistic integrity and relationship to his family. It's bonkers, very funny and often surprisingly poignant. And Cage obsessives are urged not to miss it.

Click here to book your tickets for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. The movie opens in Cineworld cinemas on 22nd April and screens in advance during our Nicolas Cage Unlimited screening on 18th April.