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Caged In: One-dimensional Performances Dodge Actor’s Career

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“Why couldn’t you put the bunny back in the box?”

It’s one of the more poorly delivered lines in an otherwise enjoyable film. Devoid of emotion, uttered with all the enthusiasm of a character that is more than half asleep, that bit of dialogue typified the overall performance of the lead character in the 1997 action flick.

If any actor epitomizes the notion that the vehicle is important, it would have to be Nicolas Cage. For every good film he has been a part of, there have been a number of bad ones. Of course, that is the risk with any film project that an actor undertakes. Money aside, there are reasons for picking a property – whether it has to do with revisiting (as in remaking) a favorite film or a project that seems like it would be a cash cow or just fun to do. Chances are, there are Cage films that are among your favorites, but there are probably also more than a few that are among those on the list of movies to avoid.

On July 16, Cage’s latest effort, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” hits the big screens in wide release. Trailers have already shown Cage playing to form, the slow-talking one-dimensional character that emotes little and seems about as deep as water pooled on a countertop. This is a role familiar to moviegoers, or at least a character type that seems firmly ensconced in Cage’s seemingly limited repertoire. Breakout roles – those performances that show emotional depth, that carry moviegoers along merely on the strength of the performance – are missing from Cage’s resume, and his general acting has often been overshadowed by action or plot points.

Take some of Cage’s more enjoyable films, for example. In the 1990s, Cage scored in back-to-back years in some solid action films – first as Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, opposite Sean Connery, in 1996’s “The Rock,” and then as the ex-con, but with a really good reason for being in jail, Cameron Poe in “Con Air.” Cage had another successful big-screen flick in 1997 with John Woo’s “Face/Off” opposite John Travolta. Despite the entertainment level of those performances, though, it could hardly be said that Cage’s appearance sealed the deal. Would those movies have succeeded with any other action-capable actor in those same roles? The answer is more than likely they would have.

Go back to 1986 and Cage’s performance as the dull, semi-slow-witted Charlie Bodell in “Peggy Sue Got Married,” or 1987’s “Raising Arizona,” and it seems the table was set for the stereotypical archetype that Cage would play throughout his career to date.

His characters have hardly been sympathetic, somewhat shallow and generally not overly quick to get to the heart of the matter, regardless of the plot devices in play. Movies like “Snake Eyes (1998),” “The Weather Man (2005),” “The Wicker Man (2006),” “Adaptation (2002),” “8MM (1999),” “Vampire’s Kiss (1998),” and “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)” have all received lackluster audience receptions. Even a film such as “Knowing (2009)” might have been better with an actor that had some emotional depth in the role of John Kestler.

And then there was 2007’s “Ghost Rider” – a travesty of a film with cringe-worthy acting performances by the principle stars, an over-the-top script that not even great actors could have salvaged, and laughable (it was either laugh or walk out of the theater) special effects. “Ghost Rider” had a production budget of $110 million and the total domestic gross was $115.8 million (according to www.boxofficemojo.com). It is, though, a character that Cage is a big fan of and despite those numbers, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is in production and slated for a 2011 release.

It really seems, though, that Cage films are generally hit or miss, and little of that has to do with the actor himself. It comes down to the rest of the cast, the script and – in the case of action films – the effects that carry beyond Cage as an actor. The “National Treasure” series would have resonated with audiences if someone other than Cage had been the star simply because the films had good stories, solid dialogue and character interaction, and a good cast of actors. The same can be said for 2002’s “Windtalkers.”

Which brings it back to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” … Jon Turteltaub is the director of the film and has worked with Cage on the “National Treasure” films (he also directed films such as 1993’s “Cool Runnings” for Disney and 1996’s “Phenomenon” with John Travolta – both films worth seeing) and the supporting cast seems decent enough. But much of whether the films succeeds or fails will fall to the script by veteran writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, and if the special effects are sold properly.

Cage has made a lot of films and still is in demand as an actor. He has brought some solid entertainment value to the big screen, but much of it – like every actor – comes from picking the right vehicle to fit his one-dimensional performances. Some actors succeeded by playing the same type of character over and over, but what worked a half-century ago does not work as well today. Look at John Wayne films, for example. Wayne may have changed the name of the characters he portrayed, but they were essentially the same character in each film. Audiences now, though, want more; they want actors that sell the roles, that seem different in each film and bring a real sense of personality and depth to each role. Some actors, like the late Heath Ledger, are and were great at doing just that.

Michael Lafferty has spent 30 years as a journalist and editor for newspapers and Web site, tackling a wide range of subject matter that includes video games, movies and home video releases.

By Michael Lafferty
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