No contemporary actor has been able to foster as singular a screen persona within as diverse a filmography as Nicolas Cage. Consider the variety of motion pictures that could all be labeled “Nicolas Cage movies” (as opposed to simply “movies starring Nicolas Cage”): the sobering “Leaving Las Vegas,” for which Cage won an Academy Award; the mega-budget B-movies “Con Air” and “Face/Off”; the neuroses-fueled “Adaptation” and “Matchstick Men”; the devilishly satirical “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans”; the “Ghost Rider” comic book adaptations; and on and on. Watching “Rage,” which could be placed in the category of “direct-to-video-quality actioners Cage wouldn’t have done if not for his massive IRS debt,” I contemplated the nature of this singularity. How are audiences able to see the downtrodden alcoholic of “Leaving Las Vegas” and the grindhousey ex-mobster of “Rage”—two completely different characters in films of polar-opposite pedigrees—as reflective of the same star image?
The answer dawned on me roughly an hour into the film, during one of Cage’s trademark screaming fits, a scene that will easily make it into the second edition of that irresistible YouTube supercut of such “freak-outs.” Cage’s Paul Maguire, a former organized criminal who years ago decided to reform himself into a “legitimate businessman” upon his wife’s breast cancer death to allow his young daughter a “normal life,” is now coping with the unprovoked murder of said daughter. Convinced the killer is someone from his shady past—for no apparent reason other than a shot-in-the-dark suggestion by Danny Glover’s Detective St. John—Paul bashes in the head of a former mob rival as a means of interrogation, while screaming out in agonized mourning. It’s a ridiculous moment in a thoroughly ridiculous film—Lord knows how Paul tracked down a well-protected mobster he tried to kill 19 years ago within days—but what’s undeniably compelling about it is how seriously Cage takes the material. This is what makes a Nicolas Cage movie a Nicolas Cage movie: whether it’s a searing drama or a cheap thriller, Cage’s earnestness never changes. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he put as much work into honing Paul Maguire as he did into the role that won him an Oscar.
There’s no denying that Cage is an immensely skilled performer, and his willingness to apply such skill to cheap schlock like “Rage” only makes the current period of his career more worthy of our attention. Whether or not this is a creative endeavor worth pursuing, it’s certainly unique to this actor. Because of the disconnect between production value and lead performance quality, “Rage” effectively plays like an abstract acting exercise for Cage, as if he has taken upon himself the seemingly impossible challenge of actually realizing, with emotional honesty this inhuman character inhabiting this implausible plot that is presented with limited technical competence. But he’s up to this challenge. It’s in the moments when Cage gives it his all, when he emotionally opens up in spite of the ludicrousness of the writing and filmmaking surrounding him—like the aforementioned screaming scene—that we best recognize the Nicolas Cage we know and love. It’s a remarkable thing to watch. There’s a riveting moment in a much more artistically accomplished recent film, Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” in which Scarlett Johansson’s protagonist—an alien—experiences a human feeling (sympathy) for the first time, and critics have rightly pointed out the expertise it must have required for Johansson to credibly convey this from the perspective of an otherwise heartless character. Cage’s work in “Rage” achieves a similar miracle: the way Paul Maguire is written by Jim Agnew and Sean Keller, he might as well be from Mars, but Cage does his best to imagine what this character would actually be like if he existed on planet Earth and not just in Movieland.
Thus, I can’t help but recommend the movie, even though director Paco Cabezas seems thoroughly unaware of the brilliance he’s presiding over, the supporting cast wallows in their comparative amateurishness, and the screenwriters tack on an especially embarrassing leftist political message at the very end. Cage is simply one of contemporary American cinema’s greatest treasures, and “Rage” finds him as committed to his craft as ever before.