It feels odd now to think there was a time when Nicolas Cage wasn’t an idiosyncratic weirdo overacting his way through an endless procession of interchangeable action movies, but the ’90s were a strange time in cinema. Just as Miramax and the rest of the indie upstarts were blowing up the traditional model of studio filmmaking, action movies transitioned from being confined to the world of popular but disreputable genre entertainment and into that post-Jaws nebula known as blockbusters. As has been impressively documented in our running series A History Of Violence, the evolution of action films from B-movie to blockbuster came through a series of films that pushed the boundaries of action farther than anybody had previously anticipated. Maverick directors both great (John Woo) and awful (Michael Bay) tested the limits of the medium, and in the two years in which they delivered their best Hollywood films—The Rock and Face/Off, respectively—the most influential and impactful American action movies had one thing in common: Nicolas Cage.
It’s hard to overstate just how unlikely a candidate Cage seemed at the time for tough-guy superstardom. In fact, the actor was mostly known for playing lovable dimwits in low-budget comedies and genteel rom-coms. Breaking out as a good-hearted punk in Valley Girl, Cage delivered wry and comic turns in movies like Peggy Sue Got Married, Moonstruck, and (most memorably) Raising Arizona. To the few people who saw the bizarre 1988 dramedy Vampire’s Kiss, which has provided the internet with some of its most beloved Cage GIFs, his outsize performance likely seemed a strange outlier, and the next few years appeared to bear that out.
The notion of Cage doing slo-mo dives while dodging bullets and punching out bad guys sounded improbable at best. Instead, he alternated ambling his way through good-natured but forgettable family-friendly movies like Honeymoon In Vegas and It Could Happen To You, while reserving his manically unhinged performances for arthouse and adult fare like Wild At Heart and Zandalee (though none more so than Deadfall, his brother Christopher Coppola’s notorious mess than still somehow flies under the radar). Still, neither world of performances hinted at a blockbuster-toplining persona waiting to be unearthed. His Best Actor Oscar win for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas only seemed to confirm that he was an artist with little desire to run around spouting catchphrases while things exploded in the background.
But while The Rock was the first appearance of Nic Cage, action star, and Face/Off cemented his reputation for over-the-top performances in over-the-top movies, the movie that came out in between those two is actually the one that cemented his transition into proper action hero. Con Air is not a great movie, but it’s a fantastically entertaining one. Director Simon West was making his first feature film (and still his only one that earns repeat viewings), and he had a savior in uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who smartly stocked the film wall-to-wall with outsized character actors and oddball personalities, just as he had done the year before with The Rock. (And would do again the following year, with the higher-grossing but much shittier Armageddon.) John Malkovich, John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, M.C. Gainey, and Danny Trejo are just a few of the instantly recognizable faces saturating the movie, and bringing the lunkheaded dialogue to glorious life.
The story is somehow even dumber in execution than it is in description. Ex-Ranger Cameron Poe (Cage), imprisoned for killing a man while defending his wife from drunken thugs, is due to be released from prison. But while hitching a ride on a special plane reserved for dangerous criminals (a prisoner transport service run by the U.S. Marshals that actually exists in real life), the cons take over the plane, and hold the guards and pilots hostage as they attempt to flee the country. Poe, noble soul that he is, stays on board and tries to save the day, while the marshal tasked with keeping an eye on the plane (Cusack) works from the ground to help Poe bring it down safely. Cue the wicked fun, largely found in the scenery chewing from Malkovich’s evil mastermind, Rhames’ illogical and inconsistent Black Panther, and Buscemi’s bonkers serial child-murderer.
What really makes Con Air the pivot point in Cage’s move to action stardom, however, comes from the fact that he might be the only one underplaying his role. Sure, he’s sporting an absurdly flowing mane of hair, delivering his lines in a wobbly Southern drawl that borders on mumbling, and delivering lines like “Put the bunny back in the box” with straight-faced bravado, but the bug-eyed mania that would become his stock-in-trade is nowhere to be found. Instead, he’s doing what he’s actually done far more of in the intervening decades—namely, make weird choices, hit his marks, and call it a day, commanding attention without once erupting in a look-at-me demonstration of unnecessary bombast. It proved that Cage didn’t always have to dial his intensity up to 11 when he appeared in such films, for good and ill. It was just Nic Cage, action star—no surprise or winking air quotes around the film or his performance.
Cage is such a charismatic actor that he likely could’ve continued alternating between wonderfully stupid popcorn fare and genuinely great dramatic fare for the rest of his career, with an intact reputation for both. It’s what he did for most of the next 10 to 15 years: Here a Gone In 60 Seconds, there an Adaptation. But the dumb action gradually took center stage; by 2009, his terrific oddball work in a film like Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans already felt like the exception, not the rule. Some of this career downturn, we now know, is the result of economic necessity: Cage lost a lot of money in really dumb ways, and began taking as many gigs as possible to try to dig himself out of the hole. (This isn’t the same thing as claiming he’ll say yes to anything offered him, a gibe at which he takes great umbrage.) It’s resulted in a steady stream of subpar films (seven in 2017 alone!) from the actor, who sometimes can’t even be roused to deliver a reliably compelling performance. Still, for every interchangeable Stolen or Rage, there’s a Joe or a Kick-Ass to remind you he still has the ability to entrance in both realms.
There’s no question that for an entire generation of moviegoers, Cage will forever be the great idiosyncratic action star, his name above the title ensuring an unusual and entertaining time. The Rock and Face/Off may have proven that his particular brand of crazy was highly bankable when he gave audiences that bug-eyed insanity, but Con Air proved he was in it for the long haul.