Best Movies by Farr: Crucial Cage

October 20, 2013 | John Farr

by John Farr

Although his reputation has faded somewhat due to questionable role choices, Nic Cage was once one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. John Farr recommends you revisit three crucial Cage classics.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Depressed Hollywood screenwriter Ben (Nicolas Cage) arrives in Las Vegas with one goal: to drink himself to death. On the Strip one night, he picks up fresh-faced hooker Sera (Elizabeth Shue), who takes a liking to the self-destructive Ben. As their friendship turns into a damaged love affair, they accept each other unconditionally, with Sera agreeing never to ask Ben to stop drinking-no matter what.

Filmed on a shoestring by Figgis, who also contributed the haunting jazz score, “Vegas” is a fearlessly downbeat love story about desperation and despair that was rapturously received at the box office in 1995. Cage won an Oscar for his gritty, go-for-broke portrayal of the suicidal Ben, and Shue made the leap from TV’s “Melrose Place” to the big screen with her convincingly raw, Oscar-nominated performance-especially in one horrific motel scene. Adapted from John O’Brien’s novel, “Vegas” is one cinematic bender that leaves a strangely blissful hangover.

Face/Off (1997)

Deranged criminal mastermind Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), currently in a coma, has planted a biological weapon somewhere in LA and only his equally psychotic brother Pollux (Allesandro Nivola) knows where. Crack FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) has a long, painful history battling the Troys, and undergoes a radical medical procedure transferring Castor’s face to his own, in hopes that once he’s reunited with Pollux in prison, the ever loyal little brother will talk. But the insensate Castor’s got life in him yet, and unfortunately, Archer has left his own face behind.

Despite the grotesque, almost preposterous premise, Hong Kong director John Woo’s second American-made actioner has all the savage bite, black humor, and balletic fight choreography of his best-known Asian films. Deliberately mythic in concept, “Face/Off” probes questions of honor, identity, and morality while giving Travolta and Cage plenty of leeway to stretch their archetypal good-and-evil personas. Ingenious, kinetic and reveling in its choreographed, over the top violence, “Face/Off” is a complex thriller that’s bloody good fun.

Adaptation (2002)

Sad-sack, chronically self-doubting Hollywood screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is hired to script “The Orchid Thief”, written by New Yorker scribe Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). Obsessed with the foxy author, and struggling with how to faithfully adapt the tale of Orleans’s intriguing friendship with a renegade rare-flower expert John Laroche (Chris Cooper), Kaufman becomes increasingly stressed, unhinged, and of course, innovative in his approach. Meanwhile, studio producer Valerie Thomas (Swinton) is breathing down his neck.

This brilliant meta-narrative and hilarious spoof of Hollywood’s formulaic approach to telling stories, “Adaptation” is the brainchild of Jonze and real-life writer Kaufman, who had teamed earlier on “Being John Malkovich.” In fact, Kaufman really was hired to adapt the Orlean book, and took a chance writing a zany, highly inventive script about his neurotic inability to wedge it into a conventional plot structure. He also invented a fictitious alter ego, twin brother Donald, who despite being a noodle-brained philistine, knows how to write a crack blockbuster. Cage’s sweaty, uncomfortable turn in both roles is pure angst-filled genius, and pros Streep, Swinton and Cooper (who nabbed an Oscar) match his inspired playing throughout.

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