The Heat-Seeking Panther

A few thoughts on the mannered weirdness of Nicolas Cage.

Nicolas Cage in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice 

Last week saw the release of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a Disney movie about a 1,000-year-old sorcerer (Nicolas Cage) who mentors an NYU physics geek (Jay Baruchel) in the ways of Merlinian magic. The movie is a flimsy Saturday-matinee contraption, an inexpert mashup of B-grade Harry Potter and retro Disney teen fare like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Watching it, I soon gave myself permission to stop following the intricacies of the story and let my mind wander to the question: What on earth is going on with Nic Cage?

I’m hardly the first to wonder this. Throughout his 28-year film career, Cage has been the subject of periodic critical appreciations, castigations, and puzzlements. Cage’s résumé doesn’t really resemble that of any of his contemporaries; his trajectory seems to resist classification into ordinary Hollywood categories like “comeback” or “decline.” Cage has always kept making movies and has consistently managed to find projects that made for big box office. After getting his start as a melancholy-eyed romantic lead in ‘80s comedies like Valley Girl and Moonstruck, Cage became a muse to ambitious artistic directors: his uncle Francis Ford Coppola in Rumble Fish and Peggy Sue Got Married, David Lynch in Wild at Heart, the Coen brothers in Raising Arizona. He won an Oscar in 1995 for Leaving Las Vegas, seeming to cement his reputation as the up-and-coming serious young actor to watch … and then chose, as his very next project, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced, Michael Bay-directed action movie The Rock

Action-hero Cage and art-film Cage have continued to exist peacefully alongside each other ever since, with blockbusters like Con Air and Ghost Rider alternating with Spike Jonze’s Adaptation and Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead. Just when you think he’s definitively disappeared into the Bruckheimer sinkhole, Cage hooks up with Werner Herzog to make something as genuinely bizarre and defiantly un-crowdpleasing as last year’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. And, in recent years, Cage has also begun appearing in swashbuckling, family-friendly PG-rated summer blockbusters like the National Treasure movies and this year’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Unlike his Face/Off nemesis and fellow action star John Travolta, Cage never seems to have settled into a comfortable late-career rut. Unlike his contemporaries Johnny Depp and Daniel Day-Lewis, he seems blithely unconcerned with the project of building a respectable actorly reputation. Not only that, Cage’s acting has continued to change, growing ever broader and more outsize, but also more laden with tiny details and tics that only an insider would notice—in Kick-Ass, for example, he embedded an impersonation of Adam West, television’s Batman, into the Batman-like alter ego of his character, Big Daddy.

In his review of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, A.O. Scott wonders whether Cage is beginning to approach “a Christopher Walken level of sublime self-parody.” (Not quite yet, Scott concludes, though Cage may be on his way to becoming “the heir to Al Pacino in the crazy mentor pantheon.”) I agree that there’s something about the baroque, hyper-mannered performances of late Cage that touches on the sublime, but “self-parody” isn’t precisely the right phrase for it. Roles like Benjamin Franklin Gates, the Indiana Jones-esque American history nerd of the National Treasure movies, or Balthazar Blake, the saturnine medieval magician of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, don’t look back with winking nostalgia on some former role that Cage has played. Rather, they expand on his long-present and utterly unironic passion for schlocky genre film.

Upon the release last year of the sci-fi blockbuster Knowing, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly laid down a challenge to Cage in a piece titled “Artist or Hack? The Choice Is His.” Because of Cage’s career choices, argues Gleiberman (who admires the actor in his more serious roles), Cage runs the risk of becoming what many already consider him: “a proud I don’t give a f—! hack-for-hire, an actor who might have been Marlon Brando and instead decided to go the route of Wesley Snipes.” Gleiberman even pinpoints the moment of the unveiling of “Cage 2.0”: in early 1996, when Cage ascended the stage to accept his Leaving Las Vegas Oscar with a freshly buffed bod and new hair implants.

There can be no doubt that many of Cage’s odd career choices have been motivated by a combination of the actor’s personal vanity and his gargantuan spending habits. (Until his recent near-bankruptcy, Cage owned at least 13 homes, including a Bavarian castle and two entire islands in the Bahamas. In 2007, he won a bidding war against Leonardo DiCaprio for a 67-million-year-old dinosaur skull.) But in the latest phase of his career—let’s say post-2004, the year of the first National Treasure movie—Cage seems to have moved beyond the concept of “selling out” into a realm that weds schlock and art. When he writhes in agony beneath a mask of bees at the end of Neil LaBute’s otherwise dreadful 2006 remake of the cult horror classic The Wicker Man (“No! Not the bees!”), Cage resembles no actor so much as Vincent Price in the early ‘60s Roger Corman adaptations of Poe stories—movies that were made as cheap potboilers but now play as minor pop masterpieces in large part thanks to Price’s craftsmanlike dedication.

When Cage takes on these outsize B-movie roles, I don’t believe for a moment that he is just nodding wearily to his agent (and his accountant). I think he’s fulfilling a vision, albeit one that looks inscrutable from the outside, of choosing roles in the kind of movies he himself loves. Remember that Cage is a lifelong devotee of comic books—his collection was auctioned off for $1.6 million in 2002—and that he named his second son Kal-El, after the birth name of Superman. Cage may mix lowbrow and high, but with rare exceptions ( Matchstick Men, The Weather Man), he doesn’t do straightforward middlebrow dramas. And his high and low choices have a lot in common: Both evince the taste of a man drawn to extremes of experience.

Cage may have provided an encoded, National Treasure-style map to what he was up to in his career when he said, in an oft-quoted interview: “I am not a demon. I am a lizard, a shark, a heat-seeking panther. I want to be Bob Denver on acid playing the accordion.” In this scene from Bad Lieutenant, as Cage’s rogue cop character takes a hit from his “lucky crack pipe” and then cackles with glee at iguanas and breakdancing corpses invisible to everyone but him, I’d argue that Cage is finally fulfilling that dream.

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Correction, July 26, 2010: This article incorrectly identified Corman’s Poe adaptations as having appeared in the late ‘60s.