June 1997: ‘Con Air,’ ‘Face/Off’ And The Peak Of Nicolas Cage’s Stardom

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 look at June 1997, the height of Cage’s stardom.

There are three, possibly four, distinct periods in Nicolas Cage’s film career. First, you have Promising Talent Cage, which goes from the beginning of his career up through Leaving Las Vegas in 1995. (If you want to separate out Leaving Las Vegas as its own category called Oscar Cage, I won’t fight you.) After that, you have Action Star Cage, which covers a small but memorable run from 1996 through the early 2000s. And then, you have what I will delicately call Yowza Cage, which covers just about everything since the first National Treasure movie in 2004 and includes about a dozen movies that you’ve never heard of but are currently on Netflix. There’s some overlap there, of course. Adaptation was released in 2002 and probably belongs in the first period, for one. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s stick to those three.

The first and third are the most fascinating, I think, because they’re almost two completely different people. I mean, the guy from Raising Arizona ended up making a Left Behind movie. A guy who won an Academy Award for Best Actor became a guy who has played an unhinged magician in more than one movie. There’s a lot to unpack there (some of which is being unpacked by government accountants), and I hope someone does eventually unpack it all in a multi-volume series like Robert Caro is doing with LBJ. Six books, minimum, each of them thick enough to hold open a giant wooden door in a cathedral. And then I hope those books are adapted in a movie franchise starring, you guessed it, Nicolas Cage himself.

But that’s not what we’re discussing here. What we’re discussing is that second period, the sweet spot in the middle where Nicolas Cage made action movies that still run on basic cable a few times a week, in which, if you look closely, you can see the transition happening in real time. And we’re going to narrow it down even further than that. Folks, grab your Discmen and put up an away message on AIM. We are going to June of 1997. Prepare for Peak Cage.

Con Air was released on June 2, 1997. The film stars Cage as a former Army Ranger named Cameron Poe who is sentenced to 10 years in prison after killing a drunk guy who tried to attack his pregnant wife. We could stop here to discuss the logistics of all of that, and the likelihood that an honorable veteran would get a decade in the slammer for defending his wife and unborn daughter from goons, but we will not, because that is what the How Did This Get Made? podcast is for. The point is, he gets paroled, and is heading home to see his family on an airplane filled with notorious criminals bound for Supermax, and the criminals take over the plane, and whoooops Cameron Poe is our only hope to stop an evil John Malkovich.

(Quick note: The summer of 1997 was quite possibly the high point of movies about airplanes getting hijacked, as Air Force One came out a few weeks after Con Air. And a few months earlier, Dante’s Peak and Volcano were released. Twenty years later Hollywood is all about superheroes saving the world, but back then, it was just volcanic eruptions and hijacked planes. It was a simpler time.)

The film marks Cage’s second dive into post-Oscar action movies, following the release of The Rock a year earlier. Unlike The Rock, however, and please note here that I will defend The Rock as one of the legitimately great action movies of the past 25 years, Con Air is… a lot. Too much, some would say. Nicolas Cage has a Southern accent that makes Kevin Spacey’s in House of Cards look somewhat subtle and understated by comparison, and he has flowing hair that literally blows in the breeze to signify a taste of freedom. At one point, John Malkovich holds a stuffed bunny at gunpoint. I know you know this, but it’s worth watching again, just so we’re all on the same page.

Now, allow me to clarify: I love Con Air. I love it so much. I am on board with any movie that ends with Nicolas Cage heroically crash-landing an airplane in the middle of Las Vegas, just on principle. But it’s… different. In the moment, in very early June 1997, you could have watched it and thought “Well, those were some interesting choices,” and assumed it was a kind of kooky one-off performance. An A-list actor taking a big swing and not quite connecting. But now, looking back, knowing everything we know, you can view Con Air as the first step on the path toward that Yowza Cage period. And you would be justified in seeing it that way, because two weeks after Con Air debuted at number one, Face/Off came out.

The plot of Face/Off, if I may be so bold as to try to summarize it in one sentence, goes something like this: Nicolas Cage plays a violent sociopath whose face is removed and surgically placed onto the head of a law enforcement agent played by John Travolta as part of an undercover operation, but Cage’s character breaks free and forces the doctor to then put Travolta’s character’s face on his head, and then the two of them play an action-packed game of face-swapped cat and mouse for two hours. If that sounds like the description of the wildest movie ever made, there is a good reason for that: it is the description of the wildest movie ever made. John Travolta as Nic Cage, Nic Cage as John Travolta, yelling threats at each other for most of the movie and whispering threats at each other for the rest, all while holding and/or shooting guns, some of which appear to be solid gold. And sure, we could stop here to discuss the logistics of two different-sized men with different-sized body parts and heads successfully posing as each other — even interacting with their loved ones — simply by switching faces, but again, that’s what How Did This Get Made? is for.

What we’re going to discuss instead is Nicolas Cage’s performance. Nicolas Cage goes so big in Face/Off. So very, very big. So big that it makes his performance in Con Air look like quiet character work. And the thing is, it’s wonderful, in large part because everything in Face/Off is that big. Someone in Hollywood basically gave John Woo, Nic Cage, and John Travolta $100 million and told them to go totally insane, and not a single one of them disappointed. This scene takes place during the opening credits.

My God. Look at that. Look at all of it. It’s magical. Magical and dangerous, because watching that can lead down a rabbit hole of Face/Off clips, and that can lead to you tracking down the whole movie, and next thing you know the sun is coming up and you just spent the whole night watching Nicolas Cage and John Travolta circle each other like maniacal cobras. Again. Although if you have to get fired from your job for shoddy performance, a debilitating addiction to Face/Off is a pretty solid reason.

Like Con Air, Face/Off also debuted at the top of the box office, giving Nicolas Cage two number-one movies in one month. And in Face/Off’s opening week, Con Air checked in at number five, meaning that moviegoers in June 1997 walked into their local theater and had their choice of seeing a Nicolas Cage plane hijacking movie and a Nicolas Cage face-swapping movie. Or seeing both. You could have watched them on the big screen, back-to-back, for the price of one ticket if you were sneaky enough and the theater employed the type of disinterested slacker ’90s teens who were not vigilant about checking ticket stubs. If I had a time machine, that would be, like, third on my to-do list.

(A second quick note: If your theater was still showing Con Air in early August that year, which some were because it still earned around $500,000 that weekend, you could have followed up your Cage double-bill with an opening-week showing of Air Bud, which would almost be fitting, in a “let’s do peyote and go to the movies” way.)

Let’s be very clear about what’s happening here. He followed up an Oscar-winning performance with three action movies, each progressively more bonkers. The Rock, again, is a relatively straightforward action movie, all things considered, especially when one of those things to consider is that it teamed up Nicolas Cage and Michael Bay. Not an unreasonable career move, shifting from indies and Oscar movies to big-budget action. But then, the next year, over the span of two weeks he starred in Con Air and Face/Off, the first of which turned the dial a little toward Yowza and the second of which ripped the dial right off and threw it into a damn lagoon. I challenge anyone to find a progression of consecutive films that wild, for any actor.

It’s all really something if you think about it, and it’s one of the reasons Cage’s career is so mesmerizing. It’s not often that you can pinpoint such a dramatic shift in an actor’s career. Earlier, I referred to June 1997 as Peak Cage, and the thing is, the word “peak” applies in a few ways. One is that he had two number one summer blockbuster movies separated by only two weeks, which is hard to top, career-wise. Another is that Con Air and Face/Off — especially in hindsight — mark two of his most memorable roles, ones in which he straddled that line between bankable movie star and someone who delivers huge performances in crazy movies. But the third way is more literal, the way a peak is the point you reach after a climb and before a descent. Things started to turn a bit for his career and his performances after that June, leading down a path that led to crazy tabloid stories and a packed schedule of films that will never see an actual theater. It wasn’t all bad, of course, which I say as someone who loves the National Treasure movies and has a deep respect for his steer-into-the-skid performance in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But it would never be quite the same.

To be fair, though, how could anyone have expected anything else? There’s nowhere to go from here but down.