Monday, February 19, 2024

Nicolas Cage in '94

 by Patrick Bromley

One reason 1994 was so important is because my favorite actor had four movies in theaters. And they're all good!
Though he had been a leading man for over a decade by 1994, the year marked Nicolas Cage's biggest calculated stab at becoming a conventional Hollywood leading man. He had four movies that year, three of them from major studios and which attempt to position him in new ways as a more conventional straight man. None of them really panned out the way he was hoping, but they did help position him for the next two years -- arguably the most important in his career; he won the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas in 1995 and made The Rock in 1996, which finally turned him into a mainstream leading man, albeit in action movies. 1994 might be the last year that Nic Cage was in the wilderness for a long time. What a wilderness it was.

Here's Nic Cage's '94, in order from my least favorite to favorite:

Trapped in Paradise

I wasn't crazy about this movie the first one or two times I saw it, finding it an uneasy mix of broad comedy and holiday schmaltz compounded by whatever weird choice Dana Carvey is making as Alvin Firpo, the simplest of the three Firpo brothers, who come together to rob a bank at Christmas and then get stuck in the sleepy town where the bank is located. Having revisited it a few times in the last few years, however, I have finally been worn down and have come to terms with the fact that I like it in part because of the weird mix of comedy and corny sincerity. The movie, scripted and directed by George Gallo (who wrote Midnight Run), really tries to have it both ways. It kind of succeeds.
Cage gives good simmering straight man in the movie, forever frustrated and ready to explode at his two inept criminal brothers (Carvey and Jon Lovitz). At the same time, there's something about the broadness of the movie's tone that makes him seem a little out of place, particularly at this stage in his career when he was better known for giving eccentric performances in weird smaller movies. Trapped in Paradise feels like Cage taking another stab at mainstream stardom, albeit inside a project that was never likely to succeed despite its obvious desire to become a holiday classic. I don't know how much I'm going to revisit the movie around the holidays but I know I'm going to watch it a bunch more times now that I've fully accepted it into my heart. Movies can be funny that way.

Guarding Tess

I avoided Hugh Wilson's Guarding Tess for years because I remembered the marketing making it look like a movie in which Nicolas Cage bickers with a grouchy old lady played by Shirley MacLaine. It's not really that at all, except maybe in the broadest strokes. Instead, it's a movie about two people who form a true friendship out of respect and admiration and it's all very sweet and disarming and beautiful. He's a Secret Service agent who wants a new assignment; she's a widowed First Lady who doesn't want to let him go. It's another unusual choice for Cage, one that seems on the surface to be another slow-burn boil of rage -- he really wants a new assignment for the first half of the film -- but is actually rooted in decency and professionalism. It's one of two movies released in 1994 in which Cage is basically a boy scout.
I might rank Guarding Tess even higher if not for the last act, which turns into a pseudo-action movie as Tess is kidnapped and Agent Cage has to get her back. That stuff doesn't totally work for me, but everything that precedes it is surprisingly wonderful. Though marketed and structured as a comedy, it's never especially funny, leaning much harder into the "drama" half of "comedy-drama." I love the relationship that Cage and MacLaine form over the course of the film, just as I love that the movie is sweet but never overly sentimental (there's a little of the "See? People have value at any age" messaging but not too much) and is really just about respecting and seeing the humanity in one another. It's a non-romantic love story, and one of the great sleepers of 1994.

It Could Happen To You

This isn't one of my favorite romances of the '90s just because it stars Nicolas Cage; it's one of my favorite romances of the '90s that just happens to star Nicolas Cage. That he's starring opposite Bridget Fonda, one of the most appealing actors of the last 40 years, does not hurt. He's the picture of decency as a cop who promises to split a lottery ticket with a waitress (Fonda) if they win; when it hits big, he makes good and shares $2 million with her, changing both of their lives and falling in love in the process because of course they do they are both the best.
I know It Could Happen to You (originally titled the less-generic Cop Tips Waitress $2 Million) is technically considered a romantic comedy, but it's not often considered with laughs with the exception of Rosie Perez's spitfire performance as Cage's mismatched wife. It's much more of a romantic fantasy, one which works through one of my favorite movie themes by asking if you'd rather live your life sincerely or ironically. It Could Happen to You embraces sincerity to such a degree that it might make some viewers uncomfortable; it's incredibly old-fashioned in both form and content, and I can imagine some audiences of 1994 (and even more so today) rejecting just how sort of corny it all is. I completely love it. I also love that Nicolas Cage took this straight a role in this straight a movie; it would have been easy for him to be the "unconventional" romantic leading man in the "unconventional" romance (as he did in Moonstruck and Peggy Sue Got Married, both great movies), but he tries something totally different here and it suits him.

Red Rock West

My favorite Cage of 1994 is this neo-noir that helped put director John Dahl on the map (it helps that had another great neo-noir, The Last Seduction, the same year). Nicolas Cage is a drifter who rolls into the town of Red Rock, where he's mistaken for a hitman hired to kill Lara Flynn Boyle. When the actual hitman (an unhinged Dennis Hopper, which is to say Dennis Hopper) shows up, things get complicated. In many ways, this is Cage's least surprising choice of 1994. It's the kind of outside-the-mainstream semi-indie for which he had been known by this point. That it happens to be his best movie of 1994 -- and one of the best movies of 1994 full stop -- is a testament to his sense for either good material or good roles, and nearly every one of his movies features one or the other or both.
The material in Red Rock West is better than his role, which only requires him to be fundamentally decent (a trend for Cage's work this year) but make some big mistakes that put the plot into motion. I love a noir that turns the screws on its protagonist, and Red Rock West is so clever and well-constructed that it keeps turning the screws in new ways ever couple of minutes. The Last Seduction uses noir tropes better, but I love the western setting of Red Rock West and the performances by both Dennis Hopper and J.T. Walsh (as the guy who hires Cage to kill his wife) are so much fun. This just got a well-deserved Blu-ray release from the newly launched label Cinematographe and everyone should pick it up. It's essential neo-noir and essential Nicolas Cage.

Happy 1994 Week, everyone!


  1. I absolutely LOVE Red Rock West, so I'm really happy you wrote about it. Hopefully that blu-ray leads to more people discovering that gem.

    I need to see 2 of these (Guarding Tess and Trapped in Paradise) and I need to re-watch It Could Happen To You because I remember liking it but not much about it beyond that.

    I'm on a Nicolas Cage high after Smash Cut's Valley Girl outing, so thanks for keeping the party going with these four picks!

  2. It Could Happen To You and Red Rock West are two new-to-me favorites from Cage, probably my favorite actor of all time as well. Great write up! Still need to see Trapped in Paradise and Guarding Tess as well and this should push me to getting to those sooner.