The Blockbusters of Nicolas Cage 

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Cage Heat: Nicolas Cage at Midnight
Weekends through July 10 at IFC Center

When Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson unleashed The Rock in 1996, it was a thrill for movie fans of a certain age to see the eccentric Nicolas Cage, largely known for risk-taking turns in independent films, apply his talents to titanic-budgeted summer multiplex bait. Cage had done action previously, in 1990's Top Gun (but with helicopters!) "homage," Fire Birds, but few took that bait. When The Rock dropped, Cage had just won the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, and it was as yet unclear if this was a fluke, or if he had sold out his now-bankable integrity for a lifetime supply of Bruckheimer Bucks. Surveying his work since, it is still unclear. His dark alliance with JB has proved enduring (they've made eight films together, including the upcoming third National Treasure) and his big-budget turns have outnumbered his small movies, but his commitment to bizarre, anarchic character interpretations in whatever he's in help any sellout label fail to stick. Prejudices like that are only for the mentally junior high, anyway.

With Kick-Ass, in which Cage plays a sort of off-brand Batman, in theaters, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice arriving in July, the IFC Center has decided to follow up their novel James Cameron/Kathryn Bigelow midnight movie tag-teaming with some Cage stuff, and the selections pleasantly balance the films that match or best the actor for "quirk" (Peggy Sue Got Married, Wild at Heart), with failures like The Wicker Man, and then with the ear-splitting blockbusters The L's Mark Asch recently summed up as "Elvis-memorabilia-collection-underwriting schlock." He referred to the back-to-back The Rock and Con Air; Cage's consecutive box office triumphs continued immediately after with Face/Off.

That Elvis strain runs rich through Cage's life and work, so it's funny that his Stanley Goodspeed is a "Beatlemaniac" who mailorders $600 LPs in The Rock, still the most satisfying of his Bruckheimer collabos. I swept up popcorn at an Ohio multiplex when it came out, and remember seeing nothing but happy customers exiting. It's because the plot howlers and innumerable imbecilities that glut it scarcely detract from the personable Cage and Sean Connery performances, ready wit (Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin are uncredited screenwriters), and Michael Bay's sure-footed action (his maximum-cuts style was still somewhat novel in the mid-90s). In the cavalier and simplified way Bay weds story and setting, he rather improbably made one of the most distinctive San Francisco movies—and a ton of money.

Goodspeed is the FBI biochemist who teams up with former Alcatraz escapee Connery to thwart aggrieved psycho-patriot Ed Harris, who is threatening to destroy the city with chemical weapons from the hijacked Rock. Cage's shift from deskbound geek to red-blooded population-saver is hilariously swift, and well after we've seen him master the streets of San Fran in a speeding yellow Ferrari, he's still claiming average-guy status ("I drive a Volvo, a beige one... so why don't you say you cut me some friggin' slack!") What sticks with you, other than that potent car chase and the sheer absurdity of it all, are Connery's zings ("winners go home and fuck the prom queen"), crowbarred references to Solzhenitsyn, Picasso, and Oscar Wilde, and the frankly beautiful green balls that contain that very bad, totally toxic launchable poison. Cage was both funny and convincingly tough in this new kind of role, and audiences bought it.

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Cage returned the next summer in Con Air, which shares much that's idiotic with The Rock. Aggressively manipulative to a nearly experimental or genius degree, the pandering script and pummeling direction by commercial helmer Simon West almost make one nostalgic for the delicate, Dreyer-like touch of Michael Bay. In 1997, no actor had ever seemed buffer than Cage, still so memorably lanky as H.I. in Raising Arizona. That's all forgotten during Con Air's workout montage, in which Cage somehow finds about six different ways to do pushups (doing a handstand, sitting crosslegged, etc.). He employs a southern deadpan here, and though heinous, its strangeness doesn't rank with his most extreme accent choices (capped now and forever by whatever he's doing in Vampire's Kiss).

Cage's Cameron Poe is a paroled Army Ranger filching a ride home on a plane that's transferring several of the world's most dangerous criminals between prisons. It's cinematic WrestleMania, with the murdering, raping, psychopathic villains (led by John Malkovich's Cyrus the Virus) each getting their own badass introduction. Every oversaturated image, rapid cut, and laughable line (Malkovich to Danny Trejo's rapist: "If your dick jumps out of your pants, you jump out of this plane") is a brazen appeal to audience prejudice, and it's both fascinating and offensive. A dainty gay character is a revolting stereotype—when Cage goes to punch him, then slaps him instead, I remember huge audience laughs. That it knows its own preposterousness is Con Air's only possible defense.

Leagues more elegant than these Bruckheimer spectacles is Face/Off, another huge hit released the same month as Con Air, and the point at which Cage's career seemed most unstoppable. The Kane of experimental face-swapping surgery movies, Face/Off is John Woo and leads Cage and John Travolta having an indecent amount of fun with the ironic and Freudian possibilities that their plot device opens up. In Woo, Cage found a kindred spirit with the same schlock-blind, passionate engagement to performance, and the director brings the earnest operatics (classic Greek bombast, climactic doves) to match his actors' virtuosic, self-mocking showmanship. As good cop Sean Archer in terrorist Castor Troy's body, Cage "pretends" to enjoy snorting coke and grabbing ass at the Troy safehouse. His tears and wild-eyed inner torture are hilariously overdone, but also convincing—textbook Nic, and evidence in 1997 that "going mainstream" was going to have little to no effect on Cage's tacit understanding with his own insane actorly muse.

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