2016: The Year in Cage
We’re already almost a full month into 2017, and as we get dragged kicking and screaming into the future, there are probably a lot of people who don’t want to look back on 2016. It’s understandable. A lot of talented, influential people died last year, we got a trailer for a Cloverfield movie that turned out to not be a Cloverfield movie at all, and then there’s that whole current state of America thing. But, in all that mess, there were a lot of things people missed. Unemployment dropped to its lowest rate since Bush, and Nicolas Cage starred in his highest number of movies in one year since 2011. Unleashed upon us were two idiosyncratic crime stories, two historical biopics, and one, well, Army of One.
The Trust (March 13, 2016)
Cage and Elijah Wood star in this small-scale heist film about two cops who plot to break into the high security safe of a criminal who was able to post his astronomically high bail with pure cash. The film focuses almost exclusively on the planning and execution of the crime, and the duo are really the only two full characters in the whole film. There are some small roles, including an out-of-nowhere Jerry Lewis as Cage’s father, but essentially it’s all about their relationship and how they play off one another, and they sure do go together well.
The first two acts of The Trust are a quirky little crime story, allowing Wood and Cage to show off their mastery of odd, socially-inept characters that still remain grounded in reality. The comedy works well, and the two have a great chemistry that, coupled with their bizarre personas, hammers home not only that the pair really only do have each other, but their desperation for whatever riches lie inside that safe. Cage does great here, his performance perfectly toes the line of what’s realistic yet unusual, with that stereotypical, over-the-top Cage bombast. He portrays emotion strongly, from the character’s unsettling deviousness to his heartwarming and genuine love for his only friend.
When we reach the third act, little air pockets of darkness that may lurk under the film’s lighthearted exterior bubble to the surface, and it loses any of the fun and momentum that pushed it forward. It doesn’t entirely collapse under its own shifting tone, but it’s a fumble that makes, what could be a very good film, into just a pretty alright one. That said, The Trust is the best Nicolas Cage film of 2016, but unfortunately that’s not really saying all that much.
Snowden (September 16, 2016)
This isn’t a Nicolas Cage movie. Sure, if you look him up on IMDb it’s on his page, but this isn’t “A Nicolas Cage Movie”. He plays Hank Forrester, mentor and teacher to Edward Snowden. Cage is fine and his performance in Snowden is actually the perfect analogy for the film itself. He’s perfectly acceptable and perfectly forgettable. He gives the performance any other human would put in, in a 5 minute bit role, and nine times out of ten if you mentioned Cage being in this film to someone it’d be met with “Oh yeah, you’re right, he was!” Give it two years, and nine times out of ten, if you mentioned Snowden being in Oliver Stone’s filmography it’d be met with the exact same.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is par for the course as the titular Snowden. His performance had a little backlash, most of it centered on the obnoxious vocal impairment he puts on, an amplification of the nasally tinge the real Edward Snowden talks with. I didn’t really mind it. I didn’t really mind anything about this film aside from it being an unnecessary 2+ hours long. Also, at one point Edward Snowden and his love interest/wife-to-be Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley being equally unremarkable) talk about anime which was very off-putting.
Snowden is unimportant, and not particularly worth mentioning. Nicolas Cage is exchangeable for any other actor ever, something that is so very rarely the case with him. It’s disappointing to a degree, but understandable considering what little screen time he gets. He had other films to channel his Cage-ness into…
U.S.S Indianapolis: Men of Courage (October 14, 2016)
U.S.S Indianapolis is not one of those film in which Cage channels his Cage-ness into. In 1945, a naval warship tasked with the secret mission of delivering critical parts of what would ultimately lead to the first atomic bombing of Japan was sunk by a Japanese vessel, with the survivors forced to wait for rescue, stranded on life rafts in shark-infested ocean waters. Nicolas Cage plays Captain McVay, and seems about as interested in this role as I was in the film — not even a little bit. Ultimately, we were equally right. There’s nothing here.
We get 45 minutes of stereotypical pre-war banter, where the different members of the crew and their meaningless stripped-from-every-war-movie-ever subplots are introduced to us. After slogging through that we get 15 minutes of sinking ship panic, and reserved, almost lethargic, Cage watching his ship go down with as much emotion as someone watching food go down the garbage disposal. Then there’s 45 minutes of people we don’t care about, getting picked off by sharks. When they finally do get rescued, I felt like I was getting rescued from this film. Nope! There’s still 30 minutes of court proceedings because maybe Cage didn’t do enough to prevent this tragedy.
The film is awful. It’s just about every war movie I have ever seen cobbled together, with all the actual good parts taken out. The effects look like the Syfy channel on their worst day. At one point a crewman says to his friend, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!” A popular quote attributed to hockey player Wayne Gretzky, born in 1961. This type of blatant anachronism is indicative of the level of interest and care taken into the writing here. There’s not really anyway for anyone to get into this film when even the most trustworthy of enthusiastic actors isn’t up for it. I will decree it here: U.S.S Indianapolis: Men of Courage is the worst Nicolas Cage film of 2016 and honestly just one of the worst of the year overall.
Army of One (November 4, 2016)
Buckle up, fuckers. Army of One is a Nicolas Cage movie that not only sets a precedent for other Nicolas Cage movies, but is a grabbing reminder of why “Nicolas Cage Movie” is a term that carries its own meaning separate from just “a movie featuring Nicolas Cage.” Cage plays Gary Faulkner, a red-blooded all-American with kidney problems and visions from God. In 2004, Faulkner is instructed by The Good Lord Himself to travel to Pakistan, capture Osama Bin Laden, and bring him back to America so he can stand trial for his crimes.
Watching Army of One you can see Cage having the time of his life. Gary Faulkner is a lunatic. An absolute bull in the china shop of the world, he has no social understanding, no filter or sense. Once you get past the harsh nasally voice Cage speaks in, you can’t help but get absorbed by how much Cage is loving every second of this. A scene where Faulkner goes to purchase a hang glider (so he can hang glide from Israel into Pakistan), where he proceeds to talk to the increasingly confused and distraught man at the counter about how best to chop up the hang glider, so it can be placed in his luggage then reassembled, is perhaps the pinnacle of Cage-ness. His character is so over-the-top and fascinatingly bizarre, while being relentlessly fun to watch.
There are co-stars, sure. Russell Brand portrays Faulkner’s visions of God and Rainn Wilson plays a government agent in Pakistan, but none of these people are what makes this film worth watching. In fact, Brand’s scenes are only entertaining if you watch Cage on the sides of the frame, writhing in fear and awe at God’s presence. Rainn Wilson is in the two scenes in the film that don’t have Cage in them, which are unquestionably the worst parts of the film, it's then when you realize this film is absolutely nothing without Cage. It’s far from an actually good film, and there’s not even any attempt at much thematic purpose beyond Cage’s performance, but ultimately that’s fine. All we need is this Cage for the ages.
Dog Eat Dog (November 4, 2016)
The most impressive thing about Dog Eat Dog is that it’s not even the worst Nicolas Cage movie of 2016 and it's absolutely god-awful. The only thing it has going for it is how unabashedly god-awful it truly is. It's Wiseau-level bad, the kind of bad you watch in awe and try to fathom how the decisions were made that led to this being something that could exist. The “plot” is simple: Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, and some third guy — a dime-store Michael Chiklis — are three ex-cons with plans to do one last big score. It involves kidnapping a baby to hold it for ransom, and, of course, some things go awry, but I’m not going to spend any more time thinking about this film’s plot more than the film does.
Dog Eat Dog is a hodgepodge of random visual choices and a narrative that isn’t even cohesive enough to be considered episodic. After kidnapping the baby, the baby is literally gone from the film and never addressed again. One scene after the film’s title sequence is in black and white, and then we return to color like nothing ever happened. In the film’s final act, it decides action sequences will be in slow-motion. Characters are in near fatal predicaments and then we cut to black and they are out of those predicaments with no explanation at all. According to IMDb, Dog Eat Dog was staffed almost entirely by people straight out of film school, which is incredibly unsurprising because it’s amateurish to an almost aggressive degree. Yet, it was written and directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote fucking Taxi Driver so that doesn’t provide any excuse.
Nicolas Cage is about as restrained as the film. Falling hard on the exaggerated and aggressively strange side of the Cage-Spectrum. His character continuously screams line readings that don’t necessarily warrant it. He frequently cites himself as being Bogart-esque, and as the film ticks on, slowly devolves more and more into a flat-out Humphrey Bogart impersonation, a decision that was apparently, solely, Nic Cage’s and Schrader just let it happen. It’s an absolute mess, yet albeit fascinating in its own way, but there’s no real, compelling reason to watch it aside from morbid curiosity. All the parts where Cage unabashedly loses it will end up in YouTube compilations soon, anyways.
Looking back at 2016, and Nicolas Cage’s prodigious output, something starts to stick out like a sore thumb. For each film’s qualities, its strengths and weaknesses, Cage puts out an equal performance to that film. The lethargic, uninterested approach to its own subject matter of U.S.S Indianapolis is equivalent to Cage’s portrayal of Captain McVay. The unrestrained excessiveness of Dog Eat Dog, as a whole, is rivaled only by the exact same coming from its star. The Trust is odd, but overall pretty good, and the exact same could be said for Cage in the film. There’s an ability for him to always fit the film he’s in, and the question then becomes: is this a conscious decision on his part? Is this the special technique he uses to approach acting and, subsequently, why there’s nobody quite like him? He’s an unquestionably talented and capable actor, but perhaps his greatest skill is always knowing exactly what kind of film he’s in, and being able to go all in on whatever is necessary to make his performance match the subject matter. He’s an enigmatic talent, and we’ll see where he goes in 2017.