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Nicolas Cage: The anti-Sean Penn

Why does one of our best actors keep making trashy action thrillers and comic book movies? Because he feels like it.
/ Source: contributor

Back in the day, it was an easy assertion that Michael Caine was the hardest working actor alive. And the least reliable marquee name. Leave the arthouse theater where he’d be starring in Neil Jordan’s serious-minded hit “Mona Lisa” and head over to the multiplex and boom, there you’d also find him starring in tacky junk like “Jaws The Revenge.” Full court Michael Caine press. No getting away from him even if you wanted to.

Well, Michael Caine is old now. So another guy had to step in and become Michael Caine. That man is Nicolas Cage.

There is always a Nicolas Cage movie happening somewhere. There’s always one in theaters or on cable or coming soon on Blu-Ray or being shot right now or in post-production or just announced or being produced by him. This week’s Nicolas Cage movie is “Bangkok Dangerous.” It’s about a guy who runs around shooting people. Or maybe it’s about a guy who runs around getting shot at by people. I think it takes place in Bangkok. Or maybe in outer space on a planet so unstable that they say it’s not just dangerous to be there, it’s Bangkok dangerous. Or maybe Nicolas Cage plays a guy named Bangkok Dangerous. I’d tell you more about it if I could but they’re not showing it to scummy press people like me.

And I’m genuinely excited to go buy a ticket this Friday morning. First because I know in my heart that something demented will take place in this movie. And also because I know that Nicolas Cage will use his share of my ticket money to do something awesome like exhuming Elvis’ body for further inspection or private-jetting to Eastern Europe to buy the actual secret-location murder-hostel they based those horror films on.

But back to his ubiquity. I read once that Cage wanted to make a lot of movies while he was still young enough to bring his full virility to them. Something like that. I thought it was funny he referenced his own virility and that’s why I kinda-sorta remember the quote.

So he’s making good on that possibly untrue assertion with approximately 10 new projects in various pupal stages, including one in which he has to figure out how to stop some supernatural events predicted by a time capsule (“Knowing”) and one where he lends his voice to an animated guinea pig that’s been trained to stop an evil billionaire bent on world domination (“G-Force”).

Not playing Penn’s gameThis isn’t how serious, important, Oscar-winning actors are supposed to behave. Serious, important, Oscar-winning actors are supposed to choose projects with dignity, carefully considering their cinematic legacy.

Take Sean Penn, Cage’s thesp-peer and on-again, off-again feuding partner. Penn’s got two movies coming, the next one being Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” where he’ll play assassinated gay-rights leader Harvey Milk.

That movie is months from release and the guy’s Oscar nomination is already a lock. If you call up the Academy and just talk to their operator, she’ll go, “Oh yeah, he’s nominated.”

Guess what one of Cage’s several 2009 releases is called? Did you just take a stab in the dark and say it’s probably called “Kick-Ass!” or something like that? Then you were right. It’s called “Kick-Ass.” No exclamation point. At least for now. It co-stars McLovin.

And in case you weren’t around for the 1980s, that’s what Nicolas Cage used to be considered: a serious, important actor. Were you there? Back when all the critics loved him? Like back in the mid to late 1980s around the time of “Birdy?” That was when they’d talk about him as the hope of acting’s future. He was “edgy” and “complex” and “unpredictable.”

He was as Method as it got, smashing things around just so he could get upset enough to shoot his scenes in “The Cotton Club.” He ate a real cockroach. David Lynch loved him. He was Sean Penn before Sean Penn was Sean Penn. OK, they were actually sort of both Sean Penn at the same time, but you get me.

Caged no moreAnd then he made “The Rock,” which grossed one zillion dollars, and he was liberated from the shackles of artistic purity he’d begun gnawing at around the time of “Honeymoon in Vegas.”

From that moment on Cage didn’t have a care in the world. And by that I mean he just didn’t care. Which is a nice place to be in life. You’re finally free.

So he used his freedom with abandon, indulging his comic-book-birthed obsessions (not for nothing did he name himself Cage after Luke Cage, Power Man) and zig-zagging like a seemingly crazy person between smaller, odder movies like “Adaptation” and buried-gold-themed goof-fests like “National Treasure,” from little-seen mood movies like “The Weather Man” to what may be looked at by film history as his full leap off the ledge of giving a damn: “Ghost Rider.”

That was the one about the guy who sells his soul to Satan and becomes a Karen Carpenter-obsessed, motorcycle-riding skeleton that ignites into flames as he rides his hog up the sides of buildings to bounty hunt hellbound souls.

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I remember thinking, while watching “Ghost Rider” and totally, absolutely, unreservedly enjoying myself, that if I never saw him in any “quality” movie again it would be too soon.

I get my art films from weird French directors like Claire Denis, so frankly I’d watch “Ghost Rider” again exactly one dozen times in a row before sitting through middlebrow, Oscar-grubbing fare like the Penn-starring “I Am Sam” again. Or the Penn-starring “21 Grams.” Or “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.” Or “All the King’s Men.” Any of them. All of them. I mean, I’m not trying to re-start a feud between these guys, but there’s your evidence in case you wanted to re-start it yourself.

And, oh, did I hear you say “Next,” where Cage can see the future and has to stop a nuclear bomb from going off, is on cable right now? And so is Penn’s very meaningful directorial effort “Into the Wild?” Well then know which one I’m watching. Because if the choice is between what’s good for you and what tastes good, then I’ll have what he’s having.

Dave White is the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Find him at .