As much credit as we give to the 80s for canonizing overkill in action films, we don’t give enough recognition to the 90s for producing some of the most out-and-out insane premises to action films that you can’t make today. In the center of it all was Nicolas Cage. Cage has made a career out of not being pinned down, and his turn from Oscar Winning actor for Leaving Las Vegas to following it up with a string of action films certainly displays that. In 1996-1997 Cage made 3 films in a row as Hollywood’s 2nd most bankable action star (Will Smith being the only one to top him both years) of the time that looking back, really define a lot of the characteristics that made the 90s action film distinct from other decades. It was a wonderful time to be Nicolas Cage. How did someone like him become the type to anchor an action film? To determine that we need to examine the end of the 80s action film.
Sylvester Stallone has publicly stated that he believes Tim Burton’s Batman ended the reign of the 80s action star, as now you could just put on a suit to fake the muscles – contradictory to what Stallone and other 80s action stars like Schwarzenegger built their careers on. To them the visibility of their muscular structure was integral to the onscreen action hero. Stallone was right in his accusation of Batman, but if that’s the case then it was Bruce Willis and his genre defining Die Hard with director John McTiernan that showed Stallone and company where to take the action hero into the 90s.
I could write a dissertation on how much Die Hard forever changed the action genre, but I’ll just stick to what pertains to Cage and 90s for now. The physique has always been an identifying quality of the action hero, but John McClane brought it down to a more regular level. Yeah he was fit – he was a cop after all – but he wasn’t ridiculously ripped. This somehow made him more relatable and grounded. The action hero suddenly didn’t have to be ripped beyond human capability to sell anymore. This allowed an actor like Nicolas Cage, who even at his most ripped (Con Air) still wasn’t on the unachievable-by-humans level of Schwarzenegger. With John McClane, Bruce Willis brought this believable everyman quality to set up the new standard of action hero for the coming decade.
In the 90s ripping off the Die Hard formula of one man trapped in a single location fighting terrorists hadn’t tired itself out yet. You could still do it and seem at least somewhat original. We saw this in several 90s action films like Speed and Air Force One, but Cage put it to practice with Con Air. In the 90s we begin to see that villains more often than not came from America rather then whatever foreign power our country was at war with. The Cold War had ended, so the Russians couldn’t be the onscreen villains that they had spent the previous decades being. While Will Smith looked to the stars (Independence Day, Men In Black), Nicolas Cage looked to America. Con Air, The Rock and Face/Off all had villains that were homegrown. Those who went for non-USSR villains discovered none of them had that unknown ingredient that made a Russian such a marketable villain. Cage had discovered that the threat lay within.
In the 90s postmodern action films began to take shape – some by self-parody (Last Action Hero), but most by just acknowledging how ridiculous much of it was and having fun with it. The Rock was at the forefront of all this, with Michael Bay starting to come into his own as a filmmaker who just wants you to pass the popcorn and have fun. The only way to summarize how much ridiculous fun this film is having with itself comes in an extremely quotable dialogue passage between Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery.
Connery: “You sure you’re ready for this?”
Cage: “I’ll do my best.”
Connery: “Your best?…Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and f**k the prom queen!”
Cage: “Carla was the prom queen.”
Cage: *cocks pistol* “Yeah.”
You can’t make a movie with that dialogue and not realize how hilariously ridiculous it is. The whole movie rides off an exhilarating sense of how much fun this is, and that scene sums it up all so well.
The key to understanding the talent of Nicolas Cage is to realize that he never phones it in, going 110% to really put the “perform” in performance. No actor turns up like Nicolas Cage, and Face/Off saw him going more over-the-top unhinged than he had in action films before (Same with John Travolta because he was channeling Nicolas Cage). At the beginning of this piece I said that the 90s got some of the most out-and-out insane premises for action films. I was talking about Face/Off. Only in the 90s would you get a film like Face/Off. Only in the 90s would a movie get green-lit where in order to thwart the bad guys they have to surgically transplant Nic Cage’s face onto John Travolta’s body. And keep in mind at this point in the film that they enact this ploy, it’s not like they’ve spent time exhausting all sorts of other options. We’re only like 20 minutes into the runtime. This is Plan A. They wouldn’t make this film today because Hollywood doesn’t make this type of ridiculous action film ever since The Bourne Identity set the new standard for action with gritty realism. There’s just no more room for a film as zany as Face/Off anymore today.
The biggest example of how Nic Cage defined the 90s action film came in Con Air. (Disclosure: My close friends and I rate every film on a scale of 1 – Con Air) Rocking one of his craziest hairpieces, and a ridiculous southern accent as if he’s starring in the weirdest Tennessee Williams production ever made, Cage made perhaps the most 90s action film of the 90s. It’s got all the characteristics of the 90s action film I mentioned before – American villain, enjoyable overkill, more “real human” hero and a contained location – but it’s not just a combination of all these aspects, it’s the most explosive and loud form of all them that makes it stand as the true action film of the decade. Cage is surrounded by some of the best character actors around – Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Mykelti Williamson, Danny Trejo, M.C. Gainey each with their own caricature nickname– with a deliciously evil performance from John Malkovich, and everyone is committed to delivering the most entertaining piece of action camp that they can. With each stereotyped convict and application of a stuffed bunny rabbit, the reality of the film gets more entertainingly heightened. This is a film where one of the biggest moments of “do-or-die” suspense comes when Malkovich blows Cage’s cover by holding a gun to a stuffed bunny rabbit’s head and declaring “Make a move and the bunny gets it!” When you get to that moment though you’ve been sucked in by just how much fun this all is, and you’re along for the ride. They can threaten that bunny and make it one of the biggest moments of tension in the film, they’ve earned it.
This is a film that takes every opportunity it can to up the stakes and up the camp. Just look at when the plane crashes and the plot starts to resolve itself only to cut itself off. You think the movie’s over? No. We got time for one more romp. Hop on that police motorcycle Nic Cage, we’ve got villains to get. And when the firetruck is out of control and headed for a collision, does Cage jump off early when it’s safe? Hell no! He waits until there’s an explosion to propel that jump to maximum badass proportions. That’s what type of film this is, and every scene has that much self-acknowledging excitement to it.
Nicolas Cage did plenty more action films throughout his career, but none were as singular, era defining and successful at the box office as his 3-picture run in 1996-1997. The 90s action film ended up staying in the 90s not just because of the decade change, but because other action films came along and set the course for the following decade. The Matrix did away with practical effects by allowing the character to kick ass through CGI effects, while on the flip side The Bourne Identity and it’s gritty realism became the new standard. You couldn’t make the action films Nicolas Cage made in the 90s with the same zany fun today. Bankable action star Nicolas Cage is a thing of the past, but never forgotten. It’s unlikely that there was ever an action star so outlandish and strange as Nicolas Cage, and it’s unlikely that there will ever be one again.