As seems to happen whenever Nicolas Cage releases a commercial movie such as Knowing, the critics and pundits are bitterly asking just what happened to this once brilliant, artistically inclined thespian and why oh why has he sold out? Guess what folks. Nicolas Cage is still Nicolas Cage and he's always been the same quirky, half-insane goofball who would eventually name his son Kal El (yeah, I love Batman, but I didn't name my daughter Selina, Pamela, or Talia). The difference is one of expectations and selective memory.
Nic Cage was making movies for about thirteen years before he won the 1995 Best Actor Oscar and became a mainstream player. In between Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Leaving Las Vegas, this allegedly fallen star made such high-brow, intellectually simulating entertainments as Trapped In Paradise, Valley Girl, and Amos and Andrew. Yes, he also made such movies as Red Rock West, Raising Arizona, and Peggy Sue Got Married. He was a working actor who alternated between occasionally lousy studio movies and often artistically superior low profile entertainments. Some of these movies made money, many of them did not. What we forget was that, prior to Leaving Las Vegas, Nic Cage was never all that respected as an actor. He was an offbeat performer, someone who often added a little color to the films he appeared in. Every time he gave a solid dramatic performance in something like Red Rock West, critics acted a little surprised. When he stole the show with his manic villain in Kiss Of Death, critics raved about a new high for this cult actor.
Leaving Las Vegas was a revelation for many, but in retrospect, it was partially just Nicolas Cage doing his shtick in a toned down version, for a film of genuine quality and morose contemplation. It was Nic Cage being Nic Cage, but with an entire film worth of back story and context to give his antics 'deeper meaning'. After he won the Oscar, he did three big-budget action films in a row. Why? Because he was a geek at heart and he wanted to do action films dammit!
It helped that all three films were of a respectable quality. More importantly, it wasn't 'action star Nicolas Cage'. It was 'Nicolas Cage... in a big budget action film'. The Rock is still Michael Bay's only great film, Con Air was a terrifically entertaining acting treat and quasi genre spoof, and John Woo's Face/Off was and is a masterpiece, and it contains what I still feel is Nic Cage's finest performance. I've always said that Face/Off's acting and dramatic scenes were so good that it would still be a great film without the shoot outs.
After Face/Off, Nicolas Cage got serious. And it's here that critics started to gang up on him. City Of Angels, a pretentious and overly somber remake of Wings Of Desire, was arguably the turning point. The film was a hit, but it contained an unusually gloomy Nicolas Cage performance. Personally, I feel that it's main offense was casting then-TV super cops Andre Braugher and Dennis Franz and failing to give them any scenes together. Super serious films with super glum Nic Cage performances would alternate with the quirky, goofy vibrating-head Cage or ole. He was nutso in the ambitious but mediocre Snake Eyes, but he was sober in the disappointing 8MM (great first half, terrible second half). He was a little of both in Martin Scorsese's vastly underrated Bringing Out The Dead, which closed out the 1990s.
After getting panned for palling around with Martin Scorsese, is it any wonder that Cage retreated to the safety net of producer Jerry Bruckheimer? Cage started out 2000 with one of his very worst films, Gone In 60 Seconds (or as I like to call it... the action film with no action scenes). It is this decade that detractors claim that Nicolas Cage 'sold out'. They point to admittedly terrible films like Captain Corelli's Mandolin and The Wicker Man as signs of crossing over to the dark side. There are two problems with this argument.
First of all, if you look at Cage's filmography in this decade, you'll notice that he actually has a somewhat decent batting average. You have studio garbage like Ghost Rider, Next, and Bangkok Dangerous. But you also have genuine art like Adaptation, Matchstick Men, Lord Of War, and The Weather Man. If critics and audiences ignore Lord Of War and then take notice of Ghost Rider (a terrible film with plenty of Nic Cage quirk), they can't then say that Cage is a sell-out who only does big studio confections. As it is, if you recall, many of the reviews for The Weather Man seemed to criticize Paramount for releasing such a character-driven, small scale drama (how dare they release an intelligent drama for adults, instead of passing it off to Paramount Vantage!).
As for the uber-successful National Treasure series (by far his highest grossing films), I kinda like them. They are, if I may, incredibly stupid but genuinely fun, with lots of good actors (Sean Benn, Ed Harris, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel) getting paid a solid sum to engage in historically-based PG-rated, family friendly adventure. I wouldn't want every film to be National Treasure (just like not every home should have a bowl of freshly cut lemons in the refrigerator), but I'm glad there is one series that fills that void. Random anecdote: I took a private school principal on a first date to see the first National Treasure (somehow Kinsey didn't seem appropriate) and I'm convinced the reason I didn't get a second date was that she was offended that I had taken her to an education-based movie that was so willfully dumb.
Nicolas Cage has made sixteen live-action films in this present decade (counting Knowing and not counting his ten-second Grindhouse cameo). About half of them have been big studio genre pictures that haven't been well received. The other half have been either well-received studio films (I hated World Trade Center, but I'm in the minority), or artistically inclined pictures that mostly flopped. So, for all the huff and puff, Nicolas Cage still seems to operate on the 'one for them, one for me' principle. He is a working actor who is undeniably past his prime, but still makes interesting choices regardless of whether the films work out in the end. And, for those who think that Cage has gotten dull... answer me this... could any other actor have made a film as awesomely terrible as The Wicker Man?
In the end, Nicolas Cage suffers from a very simple problem. He alternates between big budget studio genre pictures and smaller, more artistically inclined films. The issue is that critics and pundits inexplicably choose to ignore the smaller stuff and then use the mainstream tripe to nail him to the wall as the poster boy of an 'actor who became a performer'. They ignore Lord Of War and focus only on Next. They call him a sell-out because National Treasure was a smash hit, forgetting that Adaptation was not. They forget that Nicolas Cage will always do whatever film Nicolas Cage wants to do. Maybe, just maybe, Nicolas Cage always wanted to be a movie star, as opposed to a 'serious actor' (why else do you think Cage followed up an Oscar with three slam-bang action films?). And really, what's wrong with that as long as he does what he wants to do? We should all be so lucky.
Nicolas Cage is not the best actor in Hollywood nor is he the worst. He doesn't have the worst track record of any major star nor does he have the best. He has a varied filmography, with various genres, many interesting directors, and far more smaller-scale pictures than you'd think from all the hand-wringing. He may not be worth idolizing, but he is not the poster boy for anything wrong with Hollywood or the movies in general.