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Cage Match

Nicolas Cage
Stephen Vaughan

Gun Crazy: Nicolas Cage defends himself in John Woo's bait-and-switch body-double summer action thriller 'Face/Off.'

From Oscar-winner to action star--wild, canny Nicolas Cage has become cinema's new superman

By Richard von Busack

NICOLAS CAGE should play a messiah. He knows the false messiah's trick of playing a little man pretending to be a big man--and the magician's trick of pulling down outsized emotions from the skies. During a summer of paltry acting, Cage has been a lifesaver. And, unique for a big star, he hasn't played the same character in his two erstwhile blockbusters.

In John Woo's Face/Off, which opens Friday, Cage is a wild, Daffy-esque terrorist with the cartoon name Castor Troy (yes, he has a brother named Pollux, and the two operate together: obviously a job for Batman). Earlier this summer, in Con Air, Cage played Cameron Poe, an Alabamian constructed out of notions of pulp Southern chivalry. The conventions of the action film are as stylized as Kabuki (here's the plane crash, there's the gunfight), but Cage's range jolts audiences out of their summer-movie narcosis.

Compare the two roles. Scrutinize Cage for irony in Con Air and find none there; it's like looking for hints of modern malaise in Roy Rogers. The rest of the movie is a spiral of celebrity bits (and a plot that would make a cat laugh). Cage's sturdy persona, like an axle, keeps the vehicle rolling.

Cage's Poe is one of those bricklike souls for whom the Mexican proverb was invented: "El honor no se mueve de lados como los cangrejos" (Honor does not move sideways, like a crab). In a 1994 Interview, Cage told reporter Mark Marvel, "I do think it's good to have role models who mean what they say." It's a blessing to have a square hero in a chump movie. Cage doesn't move sideways in Con Air; his refusal to wink at the hip audience is as innovative in 1997 as the notion of playing against the grain of an action hero once was.

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The Cage Page: Fan page with lots of pictures and details.

Complete filmography for Nicolas Cage.

Official page for his latest movie, Face/Off.

Metro's review of Leaving Las Vegas.

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But Cage has a Cage-ier role in Face/Off, action-film legend Woo's berserk homage to Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face; the part offers him the almost abstract use of his art. It's a story of faces peeled and grafted back on--what actor wouldn't love it?

Castor the international terrorist has been captured after one of his misdeeds. Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) agrees to futurisitic plastic surgery to disguise himself as Castor to try to get information out of brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola). This unholy act is explained away blithely in a couple of scenes--they have these real good anti-inflammatories now. But what medicine may countenance, God scowls at. The transplant is especially wrong because Sean is corrupted by personal motives. His son was accidentally killed by Castor years before.

Castor in turn steals Archer's face and invades his home, while Archer (Cage now, if you follow me) languishes in jail. Archer's insistence on revenge endangers his wife, Eve (Joan Allen, thorny and smart in the tricky, often thankless role of the spouse left neglected).

In pace, force and, so to speak, straight-facedness, Face/Off is the kind of film that made Woo's name. And it bears the favorite theme of the ex­Hong Kong director, who, as always, balances loyalty to the family with the demands of the law.

Woo makes the story equivocal by throwing the disguised Archer (Travolta played by Cage, if you follow me) into a savage Pelican Bay­like prison. The film evinces more sympathy for the caged man than anything in years.

Nicolas Cage
Frank Masi

Oscar Time: Cage finds the humor even in a serious role like his suicidal drinker in 'Leaving Las Vegas.'

CAGE TOOK his stage name, according to different stories told to Rolling Stone or Terri Gross on NPR, from either abstract pianist John Cage or Marvel Comics vigilante Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Some actors' names are appropriate: the blossomlike, slightly old-fashioned Claire Bloom; Tom Cruise, who indeed sets the controls and cruises his way to the end-title crawl. But Cage is always invigorating to watch because of his lack of encagement: no "caged-up" method actor here.

Instead, it is his wildness that keeps stories alive. For Vampire's Kiss, Cage ate a cockroach in imitation of Renfield in Dracula. Cage lore maintains that he had teeth removed to look more authentic as a veteran with half of his face blown off in Birdy. This claim was merely some publicist expanding the real story, which is that Cage had his wisdom teeth out before he made the film (and then you hear variations--the wisdom teeth were actually healthy, so he really was hurting himself for his art). The tale is repeated because Cage is the kind of actor you believe would do such a thing; sometimes, watching him, you're surprised he didn't do worse.

Cage's substantial talent has grown through a substantial amount of work: 27 movies in 15 years. This may be Cage's secret, though he was born with some impressive physical qualities. Despite the fact that he looks, as he told Interview magazine, "like a pretty average guy," he has outsized, tremendously expressive eyes, and a very flexible voice, credible as Elvis Southern (Wild at Heart, Honeymoon in Vegas), New York City Italian (Moonstruck) or, in Vampire's Kiss, overbred Harvard diffident.

He's a big man, too. He has to slump to talk to Matt Dillon in Rumble Fish. Even though it is one of his earliest films (made in 1983), Cage already stands out from the postmodern West Side Story scenario. (Cage's uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, was once again trying to make a film to end all film--in this case, trying to make the juvenile-delinquent film that would end all juvenile-delinquent films.)

The young Cage plays Smokey, the kid who tricks Dillon's Rusty out of his girlfriend. Watching Rumble Fish, you wonder which of Cage's scenes was the one for which Coppola demanded 42 takes, as a defense against being accused of nepotism. If Cage doesn't have the force and control he would develop later, certain qualities were there from the beginning.

Smokey has big hair and a gang jacket with the two of spades embroidered on the front in honor of the Wild Deuces emblem on the back. Even then, Cage was willing to look silly as a side effect of reaching for intensity.

As a result, he exuded as much authenticity as anyone could in a very artificial movie. As Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis has said about seeing Cage on screen, "I never don't believe him."

Nicolas Cage
Suzanne Hanover

Friend or Poe?: As Cameron Poe in 'Con Air,' Cage played a square hero who refuses to wink at the audience.

MAYBE WHAT makes Cage different is that he's always taken comic-book movies like Con Air as seriously as the higher tragedy of a Leaving Las Vegas. (And maybe Luke Cage and John Cage are in essence of equal interest to him.)

Playing a deluded twerp who thinks he's a vampire in Vampire's Kiss (1989), Cage was as involved--maybe more so--as he was in Moonstruck (1987). He came into film at a time when the walls between cartoons and drama were thin--when there were more than a few directors who learned plot construction, timing and acting from the Warner Bros. animators (especially the Coen brothers, who directed Cage as the character Hi in the very Roadrunneresque Raising Arizona).

To paraphrase that line about Norma Desmond, the silent-film star of Sunset Boulevard, Cage got bigger because the movies got bigger, splashier, louder, faster.

To understand what a radically different actor Cage is, see him delivering a ripe comic scene in the midst of the story of a suicide in Leaving Las Vegas: It's not a gentle-humored scene of "burning the breakfast toast because mommy used to take care of this sort of thing before she went terminal"; instead, we see him bopping down the aisle of the liquor section of a supermarket, singing Frank Sinatra's second-worst song, "Bim Bam Baby."

An actor who acts up like this is obviously not fishing for a gold statue. Among Cage's accomplishments is having won the Oscar with less calculation than any actor before him in years.

The obvious next role for Cage is a spiritual madman. In his latest parts, very millennial roles that they are, he's embraced certain death through hard drink in Leaving Las Vegas and greeted it with arms wide open on the promontory of Alcatraz in The Rock. In Con Air, Cage brings what they used to call "muscular Christianity" to the killer convicts.

(Con Air is Hollywood's answer to accusations of the lack of Christian morality on screen. "I will show you God exists," Cameron Poe tells Baby-O, the diabetic con who is dying, and doubting, the Lord's providence. Similarly, Steve Buscemi's serial murderer is saved from child killing by hearing--and believing--the song "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.")

Cage should play Jesus. The fact that he was strongly suggested as Superman in the proposed Superman Reborn shows that he's ready. Casting Cage as the Superman who comes back from the dead (as in the much-touted Death of Superman comic) is more evidence that Superman to Jesus is but one half-step.

Cage would make a wonderful Jesus (especially if he had the dual role of the Tempter, presumably with the Van Dyke beard and the wolfish smile that made him so devilish as Little Junior in Kiss of Death). As a messiah, Cage would be hilarious, emoting charisma, vainglory and self-satisfaction; and he would be heartbreaking expressing the sudden shock of wondering how it had all ended so badly. Cage would be the most human cinema Christ ever. And when has there been an actor who was so much fun to watch suffer?

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From the June 26-July 2, 1997 issue of Metro.

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