15 of the Wildest Nicholas Cage Performances, Ranked by Intensity

15 of the Wildest Nicholas Cage Performances, Ranked by Intensity
Screenshot: Mandy/Trailer, Fair Use

A new Nicolas Cage movie is dropping this week, and it’s the broadest theatrical release for a Cage movie since the long-ago, pre-Covid era. In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, the actor plays…Nicolas Cage in a bit of meta-style shenaniganery. The early reviews have been pretty good, which is good, because it looks like a signature Cage performance. Which is to say, fucking wild.

Over the past few years, Cage has experienced something of a career and reputation resurgence. It’s not that he ever disappeared as an in-demand actor, but movies like Colour Out of Space, Mandy, and Prisoners of the Ghostland (alongside a more retrained performance in Pig) positioned him as the elder statesman of over-the-top acting. We’ve seen Cage running wild onscreen for decades, to greater and lesser effect, but it’s become increasingly clear that, in the right movie, his unconventional, fearless, and utterly shameless acting choices can approach transcendence.

Where other performers value restraint or concern themselves with looking cool (or simply not unhinged), Cage isn’t afraid to go big, favouring a style that borders on the operatic. Or the completely coked-out. When that’s called for, there’s no living actor who can do it better, and he’s given several groundbreaking (and award-winning) performances. When it’s not called for, or when the film he’s in can’t support that level of theatricality? Well…he’s still wildly entertaining, often serving as the only watchable part of a bad movie. Whether the films surrounding them are great, bad, or mediocre, these are some of Cage’s wildest performances, as judged on the Nicholas Cage Intensity Scale.

Raising Arizona (1987)

Though the first film from the Coen brothers, Blood Simple, was an instant classic, it did only barely respectable box office business. Raising Arizona, on the other hand, was a solid moneymaker, giving the filmmaking siblings commercial cred to go along with the good reviews. Though the film is a wild fantasy about a couple of kidnappers (played by Cage and Holly Hunter) with hearts of gold, the actor doesn’t overplay things here — somewhat atypically, he doesn’t give the broader performance, serving instead as one-half of the movie’s big heart. It’s not a small performance, exactly, but it’s restrained enough that the movie never quite becomes the cartoon it might have been.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: A relatively mild 6

Moonstruck (1987)

While Cher plays Loretta Castorini in a slightly subtler key, she’s still among our most idiosyncratic (which is to say: big) personalities. Pairing her with Nicolas Cage, himself not known for playing low-key, could have been disastrous — I adore this movie, and still you could not have sold me on the casting for Loretta and Ronny prior to 1987. But damned if it doesn’t work beautifully (even Ronny’s memorably loud rant about the missing hand), with the pair’s undeniable romantic chemistry carrying the day.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: A Cher-loving 5

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

Cage had been on a very solid run of critically and commercially successful films in the year’s before Vampire’s KissPeggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona, the career-changer that was Moonstruck. This comedic horror romp broke that streak, getting largely negative reviews from critics and completely tanking at the box office. It took his career years to recover. It’s not hard to see why the film didn’t connect: the story of a literary agent who believes he’s a vampire, it’s an uncomfortable blend of genuinely disturbing horror and dark laughs that only works if you know what you’re in for and if you’re willing to buy into Cage’s over-the-top (more so than usual, even) performance. The trailer and poster art made the movie look like an offbeat rom-com, which it is definitely not.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: 8 stakes to the heart

Wild at Heart (1990)

I’m not sure that Wild at Heart is anyone’s favourite David Lynch movie, but, like much of the director’s work, it’s been reevaluated many times now, usually to its benefit. As a road movie, the structure works well with Lynch’s sensibilities: Cage’s Sailor and Laura Dern’s Lulu aren’t any more clear about what to expect at their next rest stop (or on the next turn of the radio dial) than we are. Where Lynch is largely interested in setting an unsettling mood, Cage and Dern break through the weirdness with amgular performances that mirror the (very) heightened characters of classic Hollywood noir.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: 7 trips to Big Tuna

Zandalee (1991)

If you’re going to do a largely nonsensical direct-to-video erotic thriller that puts you in a love triangle with Judge Reinhold, why would you hold back? I’m not sure if Cage is having fun here, but I can’t imagine getting through the “seductive” (not even remotely seductive) dialogue here without having a great big laugh about it once the cameras stop rolling. A late-night pay-cable staple back in the day, I’m not sure if this if the nadir of the erotic thriller genre that took hold in the late ‘80s, or its absolute height. Think The Room, with bigger names.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: It’s not sexy, but it’s still a 10

Deadfall (1993)

Sporting yet another weird mustache, Cage joins an oddly packed cast (including Michael Biehn, James Coburn, Peter Fonda, Talia Shire, and Monkee Mickey Dolenz) in this story of…a guy who kills his dad and then gets caught up in a major con? Something like that. Though Cage has relatively little screen time, he’s really the only reason to watch — every second of his performance is a new, and unconventional, acting choice. His coked-out character reads as though he’s escaped from a Quentin Tarantino/David Lynch crossover, then did a bunch of coke. Somehow this was a mere two years before Cage won his Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas. This movie would have destroyed another career, but it only made Cage more powerful. Though not a reliable gauge with older movies (if it ever is), Rotten Tomatoes currently has Deadfall at 0%.The 2017 direct-to-video sequel Arsenal, in which Cage reprises his role, managed a whopping 3%.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: 17; this is peak Intense Cage

Face/Off (1997)

A science fiction-tinged neo-noir thriller directed by John Woo, in which John Travolta plays Nicolas Cage and vice versa? I’m not sure what else you’d need to know, except that all concerned take the wild premise of the title and play it absolutely straight. It shouldn’t work, yet it’s a surprisingly effective action movie that doesn’t let up long enough to allow you to question its silly set-up.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: A subdued 6

The Wicker Man (2006)

I’m not sure that anyone was intending at the outset to make a parody of the 1973 Edward Woodward/Christopher Lee classic folk horror film, but here we are. Taken on those terms, it’s a wildly entertaining one that spawned at least a couple of good memes — the scene involving Cage getting tortured by a bunch of bees is laugh-out-loud funny, and I have to believe that the actor knew what he was doing when he filmed it.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: The bee bit alone earns it a 7

Ghost Rider (2007)

I sometimes pine for the days when superhero movies weren’t quite so tightly controlled, and we could get things like this movie starring Nicolas Cage as a demon-possessed motorcycle stunt driver with a flaming head made entirely out of sketchy, unconvincing CGI. This novelty did reasonable business, making enough money to spawn a sequel, and offers up a weirdly subdued performance from Cage, who apparently had long dreamed of taking on the role. Given recent movies like No Way Home and Multiverse of Madness, it’s nice to think imagine Cage’s Johnny Blaze is still riding around somewhere in the Marvel multiverse.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: 5 flaming skulls

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

There’s nothing about this team-up between Cage and director Werner Herzog that isn’t at least a bit askew, starting with its title. Other than the central figure of a crooked cop, there’s no meaningful connection to Abel Ferrera’s 1992 erotic crime drama Bad Lieutenant; Herzog claimed to have never seen it, and it’s not entirely clear to me why this would have been positioned as a sequel to a (reasonably good) film that most viewers had long forgotten. Then there’s the film itself: an over-the-top celebration of sleaze that borders on camp but somehow manages to say quite a bit about police corruption in the broader context of American life. If it were in doubt before, this was likely the moment when it became clear that Cage can turn in a brilliant performance when playing character who’d be a cartoon if portrayed by any other actor.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: Averages out to a 7

Mum and Dad (2017)

From the writer/director best known for Crank (the rather wonderful movie involving a poisoned Jason Statham who’ll die if his adrenaline levels drop) comes this Purge-esque thriller in which parents find themselves with the uncontrollable urge to kill their kids. It’s perhaps not a struggle, at this point in his career, to imagine what Cage does with the role of a once-loving dad who suddenly snaps and sets off with murder on his mind.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: A cranked-up 8

Mandy (2018)

Mandy was the moment when I think we all realised a properly channeled Nicolas Cage could be transcendent. While many of his performances have provided the entertainment in otherwise dull films, here, in director Panos Cosmatos’ genre-defying bit of horror psychedelia, he and the film around him are in perfect sync. As the revenge-driven Red Miller, he’s very much the anti-John Wick, trading Keanu Reeves’ calculated coolness in favour of a feral, LSD-driven rampage. In the world of Mandy, Cage fits right in.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: A perfect 10

Colour Out of Space (2019)

In the tradition of director Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft films (adaptations that find the colour in the author’s purple-prose meditations on the abyss), Colour Out of Space expands the original story of creeping madness from the stars into a breathless, neon-soaked phantasmagoria that left me feeling a bit as though I’d lost my own mind before the end, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Who better to lead us on a trip into space madness than Nicolas Cage?

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: 9 eldritch horrors

Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021)

Prisoners of the Ghostland is a film that understands the Nic Cage type and leans into it — there’s very much a sense that he’s achieved his (perhaps) final form as an actor who will commit, with all his being, to material that’s not grounded in like real life. Here, he’s “Hero,” a criminal in a post-apocalyptic Japan that looks a lot like the American old west. He’s tasked with retrieving a warlord’s kidnapped granddaughter while squeezed into a leather suit that’ll explode if he doesn’t hurry up. It’s not Cage’s best work, but it’s certainly wacky fun, and represented a mini-comeback for the actor following a run of direct-to-video films that even he couldn’t salvage.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: A leather-daddy-lovin’ 8

Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

Sure, Pig is Cage’s best recent film, featuring an affecting and raw performance that stands as one of his very best. But we’re not on the hunt for subtlety here — we’re looking for Cage at his gonzo best. And on those terms, Willy’s Wonderland delivers. Stuck in a small town with no money, Cage’s character winds up having to spend the night cleaning an amusement park full of animatronic puppets for money. As one does. Naturally, the puppets are alive…and also evil. And also demanding a blood sacrifice. The vibe is very Five Nights at Freddy’s…with Nicolas Cage.

Nicholas Cage Intensity Rating: 7 fluffy bears

Log in to comment on this story!