Nic Cage: The strange career of the former Nicolas Coppola

As his peers retire, he still works like a maniac – and may even have defined his own genre

We have been burying the movie star for the last decade. Nobody can open a film like Sylvester Stallone or Julia Roberts or Robert Redford or Bette Davis once did. Maybe Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson had that touch for a while, but now he's just part of the franchise machine.

Insofar as anything sells tickets – post-lockdown reconstruction remains sluggish – it is "Intellectual Property": Marvel, Fast and Furious, James Bond, Mission: Impossible. Mainstream film stars don't have careers any more. They fit the odd "personal project" between giant, soulless money funnels.

Then there is the strange story of Nicolas Cage. Lest there be any misunderstanding, nobody sane is arguing that the former Nicolas Coppola can open a film at the Enormoplex either. His presence onscreen hasn't driven a proper hit since National Treasure: Book of Secrets in 2007. Most of his recent output has gone straight to video. Many of those films deserve that fate.

This week we get another temptation for those daring to whisper of a Cage renaissance

But, while much of Cage’s generation has retired to the fish farm, he has continued to work like a maniac and – not everyone can say this – he may even have defined his own genre.

Those of us who have kept at least one eye on his 21st century output know that a Nicolas Cage movie is now something more than just a film with Nicolas Cage in it. That hugely heightened presence, exploiting an ability to turn all his mad energies inwards, makes his every horror, thriller and psychological drama – he doesn’t do many light romantic comedies – into a singular class of hyper-real brain-shaker.

And there are just so many of them. In 2019 alone, he locked up credits on seven features. In Primal he played a big game hunter. In Kill Chain he was a "mercenary-turned-hotel owner" in Colombia. In A Score to Settle he was an amnesiac with, um, a score to settle. His films are rarely good enough to secure Oscar nominations, but they are never so boring as the dullest films that the Academy does thus honour.

Every now and then, he delivers something that shows up awards season as a home for meretricious dullards. Panos Cosmatos's Mandy from 2018 was very much within the current Cage wheelhouse. He plays a reclusive artist who goes on a revenge spree when a wandering cult murders his eponymous wife. It was also as imaginative and as creatively off-centre as anything made that year. This newspaper named it the third best film of 2018.

During that 2019 rush he made the excellent H P Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space. The folks behind the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse made sure to use his voice for the character Spider-Noir.

This week we get another temptation for those daring to whisper of a Cage renaissance. In Michael Sarnoski’s excellent Pig he plays a truffle hunter seeking out the folk who kidnapped his much-loved hog. Without moving too far from Nicolas Cage territory, Pig has clocked up universally excellent reviews. “The character that Cage portrays is incoherent, illustrative, and ludicrous, and yet his portrayal makes the movie,” Richard Brody, high-brow critic for the New Yorker, writes. If the Academy were a little less up itself, pundits would be discussing the possibility of Oscar nominations.

It has been a strange journey. We can divide Cage's professional career into three, unequally sized, overlapping sections: Serious Actor, Action Hero, Straight-to-stream. A nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, he changed his surname to put some distance between himself and Hollywood royalty, but he was not above accepting a breakout role in Uncle Francis's Rumble Fish from 1983.

Cage was always happy to push against restraints for a film like David Lynch’s Wild at Heart or the cultish Vampire’s Kiss, but he remained a seriously regarded, versatile actor for over a decade. He was funny in Raising Arizona. He emoted in Birdy. Nobody was then likely to confuse him with Stallone or Schwarzenegger.

Oddly, that changed right after he won best actor at the Academy Awards for Leaving Las Vegas. He followed that success d'estime in 1995 with The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off.

Overnight he had become the sort of actor you expect to see stripped to a bloody vest long before the last-act mayhem begins. Cage did not turn away from esoteric work and, when not aping Indiana Jones in National Treasure or crashing motor bikes in Ghost Rider, secured a deserved Oscar nomination for Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation in 2002.

It is hard to say precisely when the full embrace of Nicolas Cage Movie began. He ran into real estate chaos at the beginning of the last decade and was forced to sell his German castle. Properties in Rhode Island, Louisiana, Nevada, California and the Bahamas – a whole island, apparently – also went on the market. There were further eye-wateringly debilitating tax issues.

From 2011 onwards he has toiled furiously on mid-budget projects that would probably not have happened without his participation. He has made weird Christian movies such as Left Behind. The great Paul Schrader got him together with Willem Dafoe for Dog Eat Dog.

His name has become something of a punchline for online smart-Alecs, but he has worked his soles off and, demonstrating there may be some justice in this awful world, he is now finally harvesting recognition for those efforts.

Celebratory articles such as this – and a recent one in the Daily Telegraph – read a little like apologies for long-grifting character actor whose face is better known than his name. Yet we are dealing with an Oscar-winner who was one of the biggest stars of the 1990s. Somehow or other Cage has turned himself from a major player into a cult hero. It’s as if Clint Eastwood had transformed himself into Udo Kier.

There is more to come. Offering a promise that requires quite a bit of honouring, Cage, in the trailer for Sion Sono’s upcoming Prisoner of the Ghostland, flags up “the wildest movie I have ever made”. To be fair, nothing in the careering promo for the sci-fi Western works against that assurance. Next year, the Nicolas Cage Movie looks to be positioned within neon inverted commas for Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

Cage stars as himself in a thriller that requires him to “become a version of some of his most iconic and beloved characters” as he seeks to extricate his wife from the grips of a fan who is also an evil drug lord. Tiffany Haddish and our own Sharon Horgan are also along for what promises to be a mad, mad, ride.

Cage may not be the last of the movie stars. But there is no other movie star doing what he is now doing. Long may he continue.