How many lacklustre performances in bad movies can Nicolas Cage give before audiences can't take anymore? If you consider his recent run of titles, starting with Knowing, the apocalyptic Alex Proyas thriller that opens today, and look backwards, then the answer at the very least is quite a few: Bangkok Dangerous, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Next, Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man, Lord of War… A more dispiriting list it's hard to imagine.
The Nicolas Cage we see so often on cinema screens now is not merely restrained, or catching the understatement of his characters, he has a presence so leaden that your enthusiasm literally dissipates upon sighting him. His eyelids are droopy, every word is held back until it rattles around his throat and his body moves with a mechanistic joylessness. It's as if the lights have gone out but the gears are still being cranked.
We notice because we feel betrayed. This is not the Nicolas Cage so many cinemagoers came to cherish, an unpredictable spirit whose very presence in a movie was a suggestion of the unexpected. The nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, who changed his surname so as to make ground on his own merits (although his uncle did cast him several times in the mid 1980s), Cage literally threw himself into early roles. He ate two cockroaches – one for each take – in 1989's Vampire's Kiss, a study of derangement; he was a source of sublimely deadpan wonderment for the Coen Brothers in 1987's Raising Arizona.
The eccentricities were well known, such as the high pitched voice he insisted on using as the nominal male lead in his uncle's 1986 comedy Peggy Sue Got Married (Cage based it on Pokey, a character from the claymation series Gumby). But the choices, however askew, rarely overwhelmed his work. Cage was perfectly in sync with David Lynch on 1990's Wild at Heart (both men were Elvis Presley fanatics) and his Sailor Ripley takes a pulp archetype into an exotic, charged space.
He was a film star by reputation, not box-office performance – the opposite of today. The worst Cage performances used to be his occasional attempts to shoehorn himself into a commercial feature. The same year as Wild at Heart he did Firebirds, a kind of Top Gun in a helicopter gunship, which was ludicrously bad.
The turning point was 1995. English filmmaker Mike Figgis shot Leaving Las Vegas handheld on a 16mm camera, capturing Cage's steady descent into suicide as Ben Sanderson, a fired movie agent who decamps eastwards from Los Angeles to drink himself to death. It is a moving performance, technically precise and deeply soulful. Elisabeth Shue, his co-star, rises to Cage's level, doing work she'll never match. The role won Cage an Academy Award for Best Actor. Afterwards he went off to play a budding action hero apprenticed to Sean Connery in The Rock.
At first there was a dry, ironic air to Cage's run-and-gun outings. “Put the bunny back in the box,” he cautions a fellow inmate in 1997's Con Air, relishing the play on machismo. The following year's Face-Off was a tour-de-force of John Woo's Hong Kong action aesthetic, but by 2003, when the pair reunited for the dire World War II action flick Windtalkers, Cage was missing in action. Australian actress Frances O'Connor, playing Cage's supposed romantic interest, looks perplexed by his withdrawn state during their scenes together.
Cage has had detours before. In the mid 90s, before Leaving Las Vegas, he deliberately made several PG-rated titles, including the Capraesque It Could Happen To You, just so his mother could enjoy some of his films, but the longer this decade has gone on the sparser his CV has become. In 2002 he was alive to the possibilities of Charlie Kaufman's screenplay in Spike Jonze's Adaptation, while he gave a carefully calibrated performance as a conned conman for Ridley Scott the following year in Matchstick Men.
With hindsight they may be the final highlights of her career. He's beyond stoicism now, off in a twilight zone – he runs through scene after scene in Knowing, but it feels like he's walking. What's most perplexing is that it's merely not a case of refusing to try; Cage is deliberately adopting this style. He's trying to erase himself from emotional engagement.
He's still only 45 – he started young – but the coming years could be punishing. Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans is a ludicrous concept, but if nothing else Werner Herzog might shake Cage up. In Season of the Witch he'll play a 14th century knight escorting a witch to trial, and then a live-action remake of Goethe-via-Disney animated classic The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr. and Nicolas Cage were the three great male Hollywood talents of their generation. Now it appears we'll have to make do with two out of three.