The Spectacle: Nicolas Cage Used Self-Awareness To His Advantage In ‘Bad Lieutenant’ And ‘Kick-Ass’

All this week, Uproxx will be paying tribute to the many facets of Nicolas Cage, from his big-screen triumphs to the legends that have come to surround him and the cult following both have helped create. Next: a consideration of those performances when Cage used his eccentric reputation to his advantage.

If Leaving Las Vegas publicly confirmed Nicolas Cage could act* and 50 movies since proved he could be a punchline, two movies stand out in the Nicolas Cage oeuvre: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Kick-Ass. These are the films in which Nic Cage proved that he was not only a strong actor and a human punchline, but someone with enough self-awareness to realize he’d become a punchline, and with enough savvy to incorporate that into his work.

Notably, these aren’t the movies where Nicolas Cage proved he could be funny. He’d already done that. If you want to see Cage being funny on purpose, just go back to Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Raising Arizona (1987), or Adaptation (2002), the lattermost being the movie for which he truly deserved the Academy Award, offering two brilliant, nuanced, hilarious and wildly divergent performances — as the semi-fictional Charlie Kaufman and his imaginary brother, Donald — in the same movie.

But admittedly, all three of those films come from an earlier stage of Cage’s career, which can be broken into two distinct stages: pre- and post-financial crisis. These roughly coincide with the shift in Cage’s public perception, from famous actor to famous weirdo. In 2009 Cage sued his business manager for $20 million, blaming the manager for sending Cage down a path that led to outstanding debts and tax liens, and presumably creating the conditions that seem to have led to Cage taking any role offered in order to pay them off, whether they involve hunting witches, apprenticing sorcerers, or wearing all manner of ridiculous costumes and wigs. The lawsuit, which was dismissed in 2010, is a nice dividing line, but one that only confirmed rumors that had being going around for years — about Cage’s penchant for bizarre purchases, from dinosaurs skulls and albino cobras (complete with decorative antivenom).

The mid-aughts were also the period in which it became fashionable to hate Nic Cage. Some might say that an actor’s personal life shouldn’t influence how we interpret their performances, but that’s an impossible ask. One of a performer’s most essential skills is self-awareness, the ability to understand how an audience perceives you in order to manipulate it. For actors early in their careers, that’s relatively easy, because other than what your appearance naturally conveys, you can be a blank slate. But say you’re a comedian with a three-foot mohawk. You’re going to have to at least address that before you move onto your material about airline food, or whatever. Because that’s what an audience sees, a guy with a giant mohawk, and it’ll be the elephant in the room until it’s addressed. At a certain point, being a crazy weirdo became Nic Cage’s three-foot mohawk.

Cage’s impossibly manic and frequently be-wigged performances in The Wicker Man (2006 — a comedic goddamned masterpiece, though of the unintentional variety), Next (2007), Ghost Rider (2007), Bangkok Dangerous (2008), and Knowing (2009) cemented a question in the collective consciousness: “My God, does he not know how ridiculous he looks?”

Soon enough, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) and Kick-Ass (2010) would provide the answer: Yes, he knows precisely how ridiculous he looks.

That Cage used his own nutty persona to his advantage is one of the most impressive things about his career. Surely, Werner Herzog deserves some of the credit for that. Remaking a feel-bad classic of punk cinema like Bad Lieutenant (1992) with the guy from Ghost Rider and The Wicker Man had to seem at the time like an even worse idea than some of Nic Cage’s other movies. In fact, original Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara said of it, “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.”

God bless Ferrara (whom I interviewed once), probably the only man in the modern world whose revenge fantasies involve a streetcar. (“I hope their dirigible crashes into a glacier!”) For his part, Herzog said he never thought of his film as a remake, and claimed to never have seen the original, or even know who Abel Ferrara was (perhaps laying it on a little thick). Whatever the case, Herzog (no stranger to leveraging his own nutty persona) proved to be a master at manipulating his star.

Cage has given many a bad performance, but never a listless one. For a guy who’s been in more paycheck movies than I can count, he never seems like he’s mailing it in. Which leads one to believe that Nic Cage is a kind of inexhaustible acting energy source, a nuclear reactor of actors. He doesn’t need to be inspired, only focused and contained, like a plutonium rod. Throughout his career, the difference between a good Nic Cage movie and a bad one has mostly come down to whether a competent director was present, someone capable of tamping him down or letting him fly and knowing when to do each.

Herzog, who all but specializes in dealing with insane people and especially insane actors — he even made a documentary about it — proved more than up to that task. In interviews, he even claimed that he’d developed a shorthand. When he really wanted Cage to turn the energy up to 11, Herzog would tell him to “turn the pig loose.”

“We would do scenes in the so-called normal version, and I had the feeling there was something wilder. And I would turn to Nicolas and I would say, ‘We’ll do it once more, but this time you should turn the pig loose.’ ”

Not that Cage didn’t have his own ideas about the character, telling the Edmonton Sun reporter in the same interview, “I never agreed with that. I thought of him more a shark. But Werner has a fascination with pigs.”

Pigs, sharks, let’s call the whole thing off. In either case, to watch Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is to experience the feeling of a maniac previously constrained by pretensions of quasi-normality finally uncorked. As New Orleans cop Terence McDonagh, Cage saves a prisoner from drowning during Hurricane Katrina in the film’s first scene, but in the process injures his back and is prescribed Vicodin. That’s all we get as a set-up for the rest of the film, which, after a time skip of six months, depicts McDonagh as a painkiller addict who dabbles in cocaine and pot, strangling grandmothers and framing clubgoers, ranting about his “lucky crack pipe” and hallucinating singing iguanas.

It’s a surreal, silly, wonderful movie, but it wouldn’t have worked at all if Cage hadn’t been taking it all entirely seriously. Though “seriously” might not be the right word. Cage seems aware that the movie is surreal, absurd, even comical, but also aware that in order for that to work, his character can’t be conscious of it. There is no winking. He brilliantly allowed himself to be the butt of the same kind of joke the press had been telling about him for years. And despite the drugs, the iguanas, the “shoot him again, his soul is still dancing,” and so forth, Bad Lieutenant isn’t pure frosting, even if it’s pretty close. Cage keeps Monaghan just grounded enough in reality and pathos that he doesn’t float off into the ether. He makes the character about 10 percent relatable even when he’s 90 percent bonkers.

In Kick-Ass, that equation is roughly flipped. Surely, the draw of having Nicolas Cage play “Big Daddy” is communicated most succinctly in the shot from the trailer, of Cage creepily applying his own makeup in the mirror, a shot that almost seems inspired by Herzog’s favorite quote, “the poet must never avert his eyes.”

Which is to say, who better to play an intense, obsessive weirdo than one of Hollywood’s most famously intense weirdos? The role is much bigger than that though. In a movie that’s mostly about satire and subtext — the protagonist is a kid who idolizes superheroes in a story that examines our fascination with them — Cage is tasked with playing the least meta of all the characters, the one who requires the broadest range and the deepest commitment.

Big Daddy’s introduction has him shooting the adorable Chloë Moretz in the chest with a handgun and then smiling sweetly at her, a violent twist on the proud dad teaching his daughter to ride a bike. In a movie full of media-obsessed characters in over their heads (remember, Kick-Ass’s superhero career is kicked off by “going viral” on YouTube), Big Daddy is genuinely homicidal. Where Kick-Ass jokes about having a tragic backstory (his mom died of an aneurysm, not at the hands of a kingpin), Big Daddy is the ex-cop widower framed by drug dealers.

It’s the perfect role for second-phase Nic Cage, because it lures you in with pure weirdness but can only maintain its appeal through real acting chops. It proved that Cage could not only leverage his new persona, but that he still had the talent that made him famous in the first place (talent and being named “Coppola,” sure, but talent nonetheless). Just as impressively, he was able to convey a broad range of emotion through a drum-tight forehead and scalp that looked three sizes too small (subject for another article — an oral history of what happened to Nic Cage’s forehead/scalp in the mid aughts, say).

It’s almost a tradition at this point for actors to get progressively weirder throughout their careers. And if you’ve ever been on a film set, you can easily understand how that might happen — scores of people tasked with keeping you happy at all costs, the freedom to explore your every whim, living inside your own mind for days on end. But while many have gotten eccentric, few have ever seemed so conscious of it or have been so willing to explore it in their work the way Cage has. Not even late-career Marlon Brando ever seemed so aware of what he’d become.

If you want to remember Cage as a brilliant actor, watch Adaptation. If you want to think of Cage as a crazy person, watch The Wicker Man, or any number of films he’s made post-2005. But if you want to see Nic Cage the brilliant actor toying with the persona of Nic Cage the crazy person, watch Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or Kick-Ass.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.

*I say Leaving Las Vegas, though I really mean his Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas. That Nic Cage did amazing acting work in Leaving Las Vegas is something I simply accept at face value to avoid having to watch a film about a suicidal alcoholic and a hooker with a heart of gold again.