All week, The Ringer will be celebrating Good Bad Movies, those films that are so terrible they’re endlessly amusing and — dare we say it? — actually good. Please join us as we give the over-the-top action movies, low-budget romance thrillers, and peak ’80s cheese-fests the spotlight they deserve.
If we were to view all of the Good Bad Movies as parts and pieces that exist parallel to one another, adjacent to one another, in the same plane as one another, and they could snap together to form a kind of Good Bad Movie Universe, then who would be the actor who lorded over all of it? That’s a big question and a hard question because there are so, so, so many Good Bad Movies. But actually it’s a small question and an easy question because the answer is very clear:
Nicolas Cage has acted in more than 80 movies during his career. Mind you, not all of them are Good Bad Movies. That is not the argument here; the quality of his movies covers a wide, big, broad range. Some of them are Actually Good Movies, some of them are Good Bad Movies, some of them are Bad Movies, some of them are Bad Good Movies, some of them are Bad Bad Movies, and some of them fall in the cracks between those categories. So no, the argument is not that every Nicolas Cage movie is a Good Bad Movie. The argument is that, in total, Nicolas Cage is the King of the Good Bad Movie Universe.
Question: How does one become the King of the Good Bad Movie Universe, or even qualify for the title?
Answer: In a previous article, the requirements for a Good Bad Movie were laid out as such:
- Enjoyment of the movie must be derived from its badness. Its badness needs to be the thing that creates a sense of bewildered enjoyment.
- There must be a pervading sense that those who made the film thought what they were doing was great or at least good. Good Bad Movies have minimal self-awareness. Here are two examples that may help explain this sentiment: 1) MacGruber is not a Good Bad Movie, it’s a tribute to Good Bad Movies, and 2) Fast Five is not a Good Bad Movie, it is a movie that intentionally wades into ridiculousness (and then manufactures a reaction similar to the one a Good Bad Movie elicits naturally).
- The movie must have been something of a critical failure when it was released. Critics, god bless them, hold movies to a high standard as an art form and generally don’t reward a movie for being low quality. In that way, they’re a helpful, as-objective-as-possible resource in determining which films are bad and therefore eligible to be Good Bad.
For the "Who’s the King of the Good Bad Movie Universe?" conversation, there are different, smaller boxes that we have to check off. To be specific, there are five main questions an actor must answer to be considered for that designation.
1. Has the actor starred in no fewer than eight movies that have especially silly and unreasonable (but still sliiiiightly reasonable) plots, and did at least one of those movies have something to do with time travel?
Cage has many, many, many movies with silly and unreasonable (but-sliiiiiightly reasonable) plots. Easy ones to point out: (1) Knowing, a movie where he uses math to figure out the world is going to end, and then some aliens kidnap some children. (2) National Treasure, a movie where he plays a treasure hunter chasing down a string of clues left behind by the founding fathers that lead him to a massive treasure. (3) Face/Off, a movie where he gets his face stolen by a cop so the cop can go undercover as him, but then in retaliation Cage steals the cop’s face and, in turn, goes undercover as him. (To be clear, here: Face/Off is not a Good Bad Movie. It is an Actually Good Movie, same as Gone in 60 Seconds and National Treasure here. It’s fun, smart, secretly very philosophical, and also extremely meta, what with having two actors [Nicolas Cage and John Travolta] who are pretending to be other people [the criminal mastermind Castor Troy and brilliant but haunted FBI agent Sean Archer] who are pretending to be other people who are pretending to be other people [Castor is Sean, Sean is Castor] pretending to be other people [Sean is Castor, Castor is Sean].) (4) Bringing Out the Dead, a movie where he sees ghosts. (5) Gone in 60 Seconds, a movie where he and his friends have to steal 50 cars in a single night. (6) Con Air, a movie where prisoners take over a plane that was supposed to be flying them to a new prison. (7) The Wicker Man, a movie about I have no fucking idea what but definitely something stupid. And (8) Next, a movie where Cage can see two minutes into the future (which is close enough to time travel to satisfy the time travel requirement).
2. Has the actor worn either a prop or a prosthetic or a very bad wig at least three different times?
Wearing a very bad wig is a skill that Nicolas Cage not only excels at, but one that he has transcended, one that he has cranked the knob past "Kitschy" and gotten it all the way to "Art form." And if you think any actor can just drop a very bad wig onto their head and be at Nic Cage’s level, I’d like to point out the time that Vin Diesel wore one in Find Me Guilty (whoops), or, better still, the time Adrien Brody, who is a fine actor and also physically comparable to Cage, wore a wig in Dragon Blade. That one was like spraining both your ankles at the same time, except for your eyeballs, which is the opposite of what Nic Cage in a very bad wig is. The very bad wig game is nuanced, complicated, and has far too many moving parts for most actors to handle. Putting on a very bad wig and thinking you’re on par with Cage is like handing a horse a basketball and saying it’s eye-to-eye with Steph Curry. (The only other actor who’s ever gotten close to what Nic Cage does with a very bad wig is Bruce Willis. He has a very thorough bad wig résumé.) Some examples of Cage’s very bad wig excellence: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Deadfall, Con Air, Drive Angry, Ghost Rider, Bangkok Dangerous, Rage, Season of the Witch, Outcast …
3. Has the actor tried to use an accent in a movie at least two times?
Same as Question 1, except with accents. (The clip above is of him with an Italian accent. It’s a Bad Bad accent, and the creative counterpoint to his Southern-fried accent in Con Air, which was an alpha-level Good Bad accent.)
4. Does the actor act in a way that makes it easy and fun for people to do impressions of him?
This one has more to do with the idea of general star power than literal impressions, because that’s really where we start to separate to the second-tier Good Bad Movie personalities from the first tier. An actor needs a real presence to make that leap. Brian Bosworth’s film Stone Cold filled in all of the requirements of a Good Bad Movie perfectly, but he loses out to someone like, say, Mark Wahlberg, whose movie The Happening was not nearly as good of a Good Bad Movie as Stone Cold, but gets pushed up higher solely on the strength of Wahlberg’s name and recognizability. This gets us to the last question, which is the obstacle that trips up nearly all of the other would-be heirs to Good Bad Movie throne …
5. Is the actor actually a very good actor?
This is the one category where Cage begins to pull away from all of the rest of the people in competition with him for this particular title. Because for all of his silliness and all of his mania and all of his eccentricities, he is a very talented, very good, and very moving actor. (A thing some people have forgotten during the past eight-or-so years of his career: Cage’s performance in 1996’s Leaving Las Vegas earned him a Best Actor Oscar. You see him in something like Pay the Ghost or Seeking Justice and it’s easy to forget you’re looking at probably the best teetering-on-insanity actor of all time.) (Also — and this’ll help us circle back to an earlier point about how hard it is to wear a bad wig — Cage was nominated for a second Best Actor Oscar in 2003 for Adaptation, but he ended up losing to Adrien Brody, who was good enough to win an Oscar but not good enough to wear a very bad wig well.)
Maybe the best way to explain why Nic Cage is the King of the Good Bad Movie Universe is to talk about someone else for a minute. You know who else was a sleeper pick for the King of the Good Bad Movie Universe? You’re not going to believe it at first, but: Denzel Washington. He’s obviously a very good actor, so that final category is a check. And he’s been in a bunch of movies with silly and unreasonable (but still sliiiiightly reasonable) plots, including a time travel one (Déjà Vu), so that one’s a check. And his star power possesses a planet’s worth of gravity. And he even has two movies where he used accents (The Mighty Quinn and Cry Freedom). The only category we’re missing is the very bad wigs one. And he might check that one off, too, soon enough. But Denzel Washington can’t hold a candle to Nicolas Cage.
Five questions: five immediate, thorough, undisputed yeses.
Nobody rules over the Good Bad Movie Universe as wholeheartedly and magnificently as Nicolas Cage does. He’s the king of all that is good and bad — truly, really, honestly.