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Nicolas Cage has given us hundreds of reasons to love him. From the silk stockings he wore over his face in Raising Arizona to the typewriter that tormented him in Adaptation, he's shown a huge range in playing all kinds of off-the-wall, slightly deranged characters. Then again, Nicolas Cage has given us hundreds of reasons to hate him. From the increasingly ridiculous hairdos to the flat monotone he uses to indicate a "serious" character, he's shown a complete inability to express charm or wit in the vast majority of the films he's made in the last decade.
With the release of Bangkok Dangerous this weekend, it's another occasion to look at Cage and shake our heads slowly, lamenting what could have been. Even though Bangkok Dangerous is not nearly as terrible as some of the movies he's made recently, it's yet another example of how his bright talent has gotten lost amid a string of franchises and obvious paychecks. And yet, Bangkok Dangerous also indicates, in small doses, a good bit of the Nicolas Cage we used to love.
So I'm playing career doctor, coming up with the five ways Nicolas Cage can be saved. He probably knows all these by now-- every time he does a single one of these things, the critics fall all over themselves to praise him-- but there's no harm in repeating ourselves. Maybe this time it will stick.
1. Stop being Nic Cage
You know what I mean. Cage has played a range of characters, but the Nic Cage I mean is the guy from Snake Eyes and Next, the louche, quick-witted character he seems to fall back on whenever the script isn't deserving of his actual effort (which, sadly, is often). Nicolas Cage, the person, may be none of these things, but Nic Cage the movie presence is a gun-toting, fast-talking, ready-for-anything kind of guy-- not exactly a villain, but not the guy you're anxious to bring home for lunch with your parents. It's an intriguing character, one that's been mastered by many other actors, but watching Nicolas Cage play this person has gotten immensely tiresome. Despite all the attempts in Bangkok Dangerous to give the character some depth, it's essentially Nic Cage we're seeing in that movie too. Except when he does one simple thing that might be yet another key to saving his career.
Most of us do it every day. But apparently if you're Cage, smiling is such a difficult, exasperating process that it's only possible to do once in a movie, twice if it's a comedy. In Bangkok Dangerous, the smile comes out in one delightfully awkward scene, and it's so refreshing and unexpected that it's completely disarming. Cage smiles, and his entire face opens; the screen lights up. Because Cage's smile is not Tom Cruise toothy, or Tom Hanks warm, or even Jim Carrey maniacal. It's a completely goofy, not-quite-all-there smile, as if he's uncertain whether smiling is even the right thing to do. It's so useful in so many situations, from wooing a mute pharmacy clerk in Dangerous to smiling at a bad guy to put him off balance if he's in the mood to play the hero. Nicolas Cage, your smile is a weapon, and you're underutilizing it. But if you're dead set against ever trying to be truly charming, there's another way to win your way back into our hearts.
3. Play a weirdo.
Ever see Wild at Heart? It's an early David Lynch movie, from the Twin Peaks era, before he abandoned plot all together and simply threw us all down the rabbit hole again and again. In the first scene of the movie, Nicolas Cage bludgeons a guy to death and throws him down a flight of stairs. And it's amazing, and kind of funny. Wild at Heart would not be half as good had Nicolas Cage not completely committed to playing a nutcase, a psychopath so out there you can't help but pay attention and play along. Cage is so talented at playing these kinds of roles, a villain you can root for even if you find yourself hating his guts. But lately Cage has only been interested in playing the hero; even when he attempts to play a guy with a dark side, as he does in Bangkok Dangerous, there's always a heart of gold lurking in there somewhere. If he once dared to go balls-out, bird on a wire crazy, it would attract so much attention we'd never dare discount his talents again.
4. Ditch the bad wigs.
Maybe it helps you get into character, but it also keeps the rest of us from taking you seriously.
5. Pick better scripts.
Yes, I know that sounds simplistic,, but Cage's movies in the last decade-- with a few glowing exceptions-- have often been marked by completely haphazard and lazy storytelling. Sometimes this happens after the movie is made, but the script can almost always be blamed. Cage has proven that he knows a good script from a bad one-- he worked with the Coen Brothers in Raising Arizona well before they were a big deal, and he had the sense to sign on to the bizarre Adaptation. I don't know if it's for the paycheck or the chance to play another gun-toting hero, but Cage keeps picking movies that offer virtually nothing in terms of invention or creativity. Believe it or not, Bangkok Dangerous may be a step in the right direction-- it features gorgeous cinematography, and the Pangs are fast-rising directors, even if their American work has only been so-so. Dangerous may be Cage's shot in the dark, his attempt to tell us he has some sense left. It's a start. Let's see where he can take it from here.<