Uncaged - Leaving Las Vegas (1995) & The Rock (1996)
This year, I am going to try to get through the whole oeuvre of Nicolas Cage because my fascination with this man and his contradictions is endless. God help me.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Leaving Las Vegas’ ironic title gives the illusion of choice to the main characters of Ben Sanderson (Cage) and Sera (Elisabeth Shue). I have always found it ironic that a city in the middle of the desert, which is quite objectively awful and soul-crushing, should be seen as any sort of haven. Both Ben and Sera are under no such illusion. Eventually, I will have to write about this film for my Canon, so I will save my more complex thoughts on this movie for that time, way in the future. Both actors give their career-winning performances. Though there is a real, terrible tendency to judge characters for characteristics they cannot help (mental illness, physical disability, and, yes, alcoholism), this film never takes that tactic. Or more specifically, Cage never does. Cage never looks down on his character. His pain is real, and he doesn’t judge the character for acting the way that he does. That’s why he can be tender at some times and then a total asshole at other times. The movie does not condone the consequences of his actions, but it lets Ben suffer the consequences of his choices, and the fact that he never pities himself grants him a strange sort of nobility.
We know less about Sera. Why she thinks so little of herself and would let men abuse and defile her in every way. Her relationship with Ben could be seen as just another in her pattern of bad relationships. Yet Ben never demands anything of her, except for the first time they meet when he pays for sex. I don’t think their relationship is ideal, and they are definitely not good for each other, but I could understand how Sera would want to be with someone with whom she can easily dictate terms for the awful mess that is her life. Shue’s hardness mixed with vulnerability is so winning that our skin starts to crawl when we see just how badly other men are treating her in her life. The movie is desultory and languid, reflecting Ben’s last days in his alcohol-fueled haze, and Mike Figgis nails everything about the tone, from the night lighting of Vegas to the jazzy, boozy score (which he composed). This is the type of movie Cage thrives in - a director with a strong vision, a complex character who is not a stereotype, an equally strong performance to play opposite of. Most actors would thrive in this type of environment, but when the stars align for Cage, he really shines.
The Rock (1996)
Many people dismiss Michael Bay for good reason. I never had a more miserable experience in a theater than enduring Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I had never been so bored at a movie that was so desperately trying to entertain me. I will say though that if your expectations are relatively low and when Michael Bay keeps his signature Bayhem - visual and aural maximalism - to a minimum, he can make a pretty effective action movie, which is essentially what The Rock is. It makes sense that this is early on in his career before the godawful one-two sucker punch of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. His signature gliding camera and extremely busy frames are kept to a minimum except for relatively few shots (still a lot compared to most directors). I mean who doesn’t get a slight twinge in the heart when we see Nic Cage lifting up those green flares in a desperate attempt to stop the fighter jets from bombing the island?
It’s interesting to see how Bay movies have been accused of jingoism. The plot of this movie revolves around a rogue military career man (a pretty effective Ed Harris) getting revenge on the government that betrayed him and veterans in general. The government heavies also have no compunction of using a renegade spy (Sean Connery) to infiltrate Alcatraz, where the rogue military officers are stationed and holding hostages, with the intention of not honoring their promises at all. Of course, it’s easy to miss the subtleties of story when there are literally scenes of a guy getting blasted point blank with a missile and another guy’s face getting melted. Even though the way Americans and the American government have treated veterans is atrocious, nothing is more patriotic than paying veterans lip service, and this movie falls into the trap and serves as the template for other more blatantly jingoistic movies.
We also forget that Nic Cage can play a convincingly nebbish and insecure person when he needs to without shouting it to the rooftops. Cage could be accused of a lot of things, but I don’t think anyone could call him a selfish actor. Connery gets nearly all the best one-liners and cool action moments. Cage plays the straight man more often than people unfamiliar with his movies (or have a very selective memory) think, and the movie works because we root for him and believe his underdog status.