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The Definitive Ranking of Nic Cage’s Craziest Performances — Including ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’

Is the 2021 film really Cage’s most unhinged performance ever? Let's rank them all and find out

Over a career that’s spanned 40 years, Nicolas Cage has headlined blockbusters, won an Academy Award and cemented his place in cinema history with his signature embrace of the absurd. When he signs onto a role, there’s an unspoken promise that anything can happen, from ancient aliens with martial arts mastery to a mind-snapping face swap, to BEEEEEEEEEEEES! So, when we heard what this iconic actor had to say about his latest film, Prisoners of the Ghostland, our hopes soared sky high.

Cage has described the action film, which made its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 30th, by saying, “It might be the wildest movie I’ve ever made, and that’s saying something.” 

Damn straight it is. 

Considering all the unabashedly wild cinema that Cage has brought into theaters and our homes, there’s only one truly fitting way to assess his Prisoners of the Ghostland comments, and that’s to determine how it ranks against the most bonkers of Cage performances. You’ll find our review at the end, but before diving into the action-epic that has tongues wagging out of Sundance, let’s take a look back at his history of histrionics. 

Peggy Sue Got Married 

Shortly before Cher would tell him to “Snap out of it!” in Moonstruck, Kathleen Turner was turning down Cage over and over in this bizarre time-travel comedy. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the 1986 gem stars Turner as a downtrodden divorcee, whose 25th high school reunion slingshots her back to her senior year. With all her choices once again before her, Peggy Sue flirts with different futures, as well as a brooding poet, a brilliant wallflower and the high school sweetheart with swagger for decades. Guess who Cage plays. 

Amid a bopping 1960 setting, Cage channels his chaotic charisma into the coolest boy in school. Charlie Bodell has a sweet car, good looks, big dreams to be a show-stopping singer and the prettiest girl in school on his arm. So, he’s completely confounded when Peggy rejects him, ranting about long-held resentments, extramarital affairs and their children. While Turner is the emotional core of this film, Cage is its flashy exterior, bedecked in sequined blazers, a bright blond pompadour and a violently wide smile that would become a trademark. 

Pitching his voice peculiarly high with a nasal twang, Cage seems like a live-action cartoon character, one who is baffled by this flesh-and-blood woman. He plays the part so broad that he outshines a young Jim Carrey and gives the whole film a surreal vibe that calls us to question whether this is really a time-warped second chance, or a strange but wonderful dream. 

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Vampire’s Kiss 

One of Cage’s campiest performances came in this 1988 horror-comedy. Directed by Robert Bierman, this funky film follows Peter Loew, a Manhattan executive who spends his days barking at his secretary and pontificating to his shrink, then his nights on the prowl for a good time. After a particularly intense one-night-stand, this suit becomes convinced he’s turning into a vampire. Cage took the kooky concept and went wild with it. 

The subtext of this story is one of fear and paranoia over casual sex and the AIDS crisis. Cage exemplifies this American hysteria through a performance that is unabashedly bizarre: His eyes bulge, his mouth clatters with pronounced plastic fangs as he runs down the sidewalks yowling that he’s a vampire. Today, some of this movie’s weirder moments have become memes thanks to Cage’s exuberant physicality. Yet even before Peter goes mad, Cage makes some big choices, saddling the man with an accent that’s unplaceable and a cadence that swings from a sleepy whisper to an urgent howl. The movie itself is a mixed bag, but Cage’s performance is just nuts. 

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Wild At Heart 

With Cage carving out a path as a fascinating and apologetically unhinged leading man, it was only a matter of time before David Lynch came calling. By 1990, Lynch had forged a reputation for films strange and seductive, thanks to The Elephant Man, Dune and Blue Velvet. Then, he joined forces with Cage, casting the rising star as a lusty lover opposite a game-as-hell Laura Dern. 

Based on the Barry Griffin novel, Wild At Heart spins a Romeo and Juliet tale about a young couple on the run from a hitman hired by the girl’s mother. Slippery with style, this film slides Cage into an Elvis Presley persona and snakeskin jacket, in which he’ll let loose punches and lip-curling provocations. And for once, all around him are on his level of over-the-top. Dern is a wiggling frenzy of youthful defiance and passion. Diane Ladd is a snarling nag so sinister she could be a Disney villain, while Willem Dafoe is a mustachioed madman, whose giggle is spine-tingling. As Lula says with a sexy sneer, “This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top.” We wouldn’t want it any other way. 

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Face/Off

The late 1990s ushered in a curious era of Cage, where he tamped down his audacity to play the steely action star of movies like The Rock, Con Air and 8MM. Sure, their premises were high-concept mayhem, but their headliner was pulling his punchiness. Yet 1997 was when Cage gave us a double-dose of wild with Face/Off. There, he shared two over-the-top action roles with fellow heralded ham, John Travolta. 

Directed by John Woo, this Cage vehicle boasts an outstanding onslaught of action sequences, folding in chase scenes with cars, planes and motorboats, as well as explosions, Mexican standoffs and a string of shocking twists. Its plot is preposterous: A dedicated FBI agent swaps bodies with his nemesis, a merciless terrorist; insanity ensues. Cage begins as the vicious and vulgar baddie, relishing every moment with a snarling delivery, swinging hips and a dangerous sexual allure. Then the tables are flipped and he glides into a role of heartbroken hero cop with baleful eyes and a harrowing howl. THEN, he blends the two to create a man of action unbound by sense and fueled by righteous revenge. As such, Cage gives his fans a feast that never stops satisfying. 

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The Wicker Man  

If you dare remake a folk horror classic like the 1973 film The Wicker Man, you better bring something truly special to the altar. In 2006, playwright turned filmmaker Neil LaBute brought Cage, casting him as a noble cop, haunted by a child he couldn’t save. So when his former fiancée reaches out begging for help finding her missing daughter, Officer Edward Malus can’t turn her down. Little does he realize his trip to an idyllic island will spell his doom. 

By this time, Cage had won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and thrilled audiences with mainstream crowd-pleasers like National Treasure and sweeping romances like City of Angels. He proved he could play everymen, madmen and anything in between. So when it came to this studio produced horror film, he delivers a dizzying mix, baring soulful eyes with an aggressive attitude as the confident cop strides onto a confounding conspiracy. However, as his big-hearted hero is sucked into the swirl of a cultish community, Cage spins into the kind of caterwauling that has made him a screen — and scream — legend. (Pro-tip: To see him in his full glory, seek out the unrated DVD version. The PG-13 theatrical cut doesn’t include his iconic bees scene!) 

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Mandy 

When Cage is in a movie, there’s an unspoken promise of unpredictability. Will he be tender or terrifying? Will he be dashing or deranged? All we know is that he will be riveting. This made him the perfect center to Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy. This psychedelic stunner is stuffed with style, including an eye-popping color palette, swooning pace, ominous synth score and Heavy Metal-like animated accents. Then, for good measure, there’s a sprinkling of cults, demons, chainsaw dueling and cheddar goblins. Beautiful and brutal, Cosmatos crafted a waking nightmare for Cage to explore with everything he has.

Critics cheered Cage’s performance as Red Miller, a robust logger whose life revolves around worshipping his titular ladylove. However, when a drug-fueled cult abducts her for their tyrannical leader, Red must become a man of action, who will know violence, rage and revenge… all while wearing tighty-whities and a face caked in blood. This may sound absurd, yet Mandy works because Cosmatos and Cage give themselves sincerely to its journey, creating a savagely submersive experience that invites audiences in to know divine love, abject madness and righteous bloodlust. There’s no camp here, only carnage. 

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Jiu Jitsu 

The past decade has seen Cage digging into genre with an insatiable earnestness. Many of these B-movies have wild plotlines: Between Worlds focuses on the twisted romance between a widow and teen girl whose body has been possessed by his dead wife; Mom and Dad was a gory horror-comedy in which he played a family man determined to murder off his brood. Yet this 2020 martial arts movie from Dimitri Logothetis outdoes both when it comes to WTF. 

Imagine if Ancient Aliens and Predator had a love child and Nic Cage showed up to christen it. Jiu Jitsu’s plot is nonsense: An extraterrestrial warrior descends on a Burmese temple every six years to challenge human combatants in the fighting form he taught their ancestors ages ago. It’s a slim excuse for a slew of battle scenes, blending low-budget effects and solid stunt work. 

How does Cage fit in? He’s the crazy sage who’s hiding in an underground cave, making hats out of newspaper and waiting for fate to give him a shot at redemption. Crazy-eyed and rambling a mile a minute, Cage takes this mediocre action offering to a new level with sheer screen presence. 

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Color Out of Space 

Before Prisoners of the Ghostland, the wildest movie in Cage’s illustriously fucked up filmography might be 2019’s outrageous adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story, which centers on an alien invasion overtaking a family’s farm. Lovecraft’s surreal and sickening spin on science-fiction horror is brought to life by visionary director Richard Stanley, who went from eccentric to infamous when he lost control of his would-be adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Stanley’s vision for Lovecraft’s tale includes a fuchsia infestation of creepy critters, a yowling score and harrowing body horror that will make your skin crawl and your stomach revolt. To all that, Cage comes as an abundant dollop of bonkers. 

Nathan Gardner is a farmer struggling to build a new life for his city-loving family, and he’s in over his head. While Cage never quite fits as the everyman introduced, he’s perfectly cast for Nathan’s descent into meteorite-spurred madness. It begins with little things, like the weirdly dramatic way he says “alpaca,” as if the word itself is an alien insult. Then, he starts twitching, abruptly singing opera and unfurling a cattywampus grin that screams of horrors to come. In a world turned inside out, Cage becomes our mesmerizing tour guide, whose flesh flakes, voice trembles and every cell quakes with agony and excitement so we can’t look away. 

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Prisoners of the Ghostland

Prolific Japanese director Sion Sono makes his English-language debut with an East-meets-West epic that’s basically Escape From L.A. on acid. Cage stars as an unnamed bankrobber, whose crime spree came to a grisly end of blood spray and spilled gumballs. However, a chance at freedom is offered from the Southern-fried governor, who rules with an iron fist over a town of cowboys and geishas. All our hero has to do is recover the governor’s beloved granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) from the grips of a dystopian hellscape known as the Ghostland, where radioactive convicts, scavenging rat men and Texas Chainsaw mannequins roam.

It kills me that we don’t have a trailer for this movie yet, in part because any description of Prisoners of the Ghostland sounds completely insane. Renowned for bold cinema, Sono combines the violently neon color palette of Only God Forgives with Western and samurai iconography, shades of Metropolis’ oppressed working class, Mad Max-style dystopian desecration and a Jim Croce record drop played over one of several thrilling sword fights. Then, it ALSO has Nicolas Cage. 

Cage wasn’t kidding when he called this one of his “wildest” films. The collision of influences alone is a deranged delight. On top of that, there’s Cage strapped into a full-leather bodysuit, rigged with explosives that threaten his arms, head and “TESTICLEEEEEEEEESSS!” When I tell you this has balls-to-the-wall action and gore, I mean it literally, and Cage is the perfect leading man to shoulder all the outrageousness. He begins as the snarling tough guy we’ve seen in a slew of his action films. Then he embraces the absurd, bouncing onto a child’s bicycle, delivering meaty swings of fist and metal, misquoting Hamlet with a wistful gravity, bulging his eyes as if they might burst and throwing the full force of his soul into it all with a “Hi-FUCKING-YAH!”

It’s bonkers. It’s brilliant. It’s Nicolas Cage in all his give-no-fucks glory.

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