Nicolas Cage has gotten a lot of flack for his seemingly indiscriminate movie choices, and we can't argue that he's taken part in many unmemorable -- and, yes, downright bad -- films. It's also true, and sometimes overlooked, that he's done amazingly solid work in a variety of worthwhile movies, not all of them in the distant past, i.e., 2009's 'The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans' and last year's 'Kick-Ass.'
He's still one of the funniest, most soulful, and eccentric presences on film ... when given the right vehicle. Unfortunately Hollywood is rife with clunkers and Cage clearly doesn't like to turn down work. (Some cite his numerous, much-publicized real estate acquisitions, among other expensive purchases, as the reason for his, um, productivity.)
Part of our disappointment with Cage's movie choices stems from the fact that his early career was so stellar. With an intense, engagingly off persona that was somehow both touching and sexy, Cage made a great impression in '80s movies 'Racing with the Moon,' 'Birdy,' and 'Peggy Sue Got Married,' among others. Any lingering thoughts of Coppola-related nepotism were forgotten as he finished off that decade -- and a charmed career stretch -- with 'Raising Arizona,' 'Moonstruck' and 'Wild at Heart,' all outstanding roles and films. (Even 1988's much-maligned 'Vampire's Kiss' was compelling for his committed, completely over-the-top performance.)
Then in the '90s, maybe inevitably, things started to slip. Though there were a few good movies ('Red Rock West') and roles (a stunning villain in 'Kiss of Death'), there was also the deeply unremarkable ('Guarding Tess,' 'It Could Happen to You') and the seriously awful ('Zandalee,' 'Deadfall') -- which is why Cage's Ben Sanderson in 1995's 'Leaving Las Vegas,' an incredibly honest and moving portrayal, was such a welcome role.
A depressed, unrepentant alcoholic, beyond help or redemption, Ben is fired from his screenwriting job in L.A. and moves to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. He meets a hooker (Elisabeth Shue), an equally lost soul, and they fall in love, both with the knowledge that they cannot expect the other to change. Mike Figgis' movie is thoroughly dark and often painful, but the leads' performances (and a great soundtrack) make it a must-see.
Shue, who'd never had a role remotely like this before (and hasn't since) is a revelation, but Cage is just as remarkable. His Ben is honest, intelligent and still capable of great charm; he's also completely resigned to his fate, and Cage's hollow-eyed cheerfulness and slow physical deterioration are heartbreaking to behold. Although quite capable of scenery-chewing, the actor doesn't overdo any of it, and he'd ultimately go on to win a Best Actor Oscar for his efforts.
Note: The following clip contains R-rated language (and yes, that's Julian Lennon as the bartender!)
Post-'Leaving Las Vegas,' Cage dove into action with 'The Rock,' 'Con Air,' and 'Face Off' -- each of which, to be sure, has its merits -- as well as various thrillers before turning in another haunting performance in Martin Scorsese's equally bleak 'Bringing Out The Dead' (1999). He continued his mixed-bag career with dopey mayhem ('Gone in Sixty Seconds') and middling drama ('The Family Man,'); some great films with rich, unusual roles deserving of Cage's talents ('Adaptation,' 'Matchstick Men'), and some unexpectedly decent ones as well ('The Weather Man,' 'World Trade Center').
In the past decade, Mr. Cage has taken on myriad action/adventure/fantasy flicks, including the 'National Treasure' franchise, 'Ghost Rider' and 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' much to the consternation of fans of his more serious work. On the other hand, he showed a complete return to subversive form with 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans' and his funny, poignant Big Daddy in 'Kick-Ass' was thoroughly enjoyable.
The prolific actor's upcoming titles include the revenge flick 'Drive Angry 3D,' Joel Schumacher's 'Trespass,' and a 'Ghost Rider' sequel ... not very promising. (Dominic Sena's supernatural thriller 'Season of the Witch,' opening Friday, had a long-delayed release, which is almost never a good sign.) We can only hope that Cage gets the chance -- or chooses -- to impress us again with a role like Ben Sanderson. We know he still has it in him.