Two weeks ago, Liam Neeson moseyed into theaters with A Walk Among the Tombstones, another movie where he plays a sullen badass out for revenge. Last week, Denzel Washington reunited with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua for The Equalizer, where he yet again plays another charismatic badass. This week, Nicolas Cage returns to the cinema in a remake of rapture fable Left Behind, where he yet again shows that it’s practically impossible to know what’s next for this crazy badass. Washington, Neeson, and Cage – all respected actors with three Oscar wins and six Oscar nominations among them, and all caught in a very similar professional rut.
Over the past decade or so, these three men, who are among the best actors we have working today, have seemingly preferred going for the easy paycheck over taking on more interesting or complicated roles in films more befitting of their particular skill sets. But there’s something rotten in the state of public perception. Compared to the other two, it doesn’t seem like Washington gets nearly as much flak for using his talents in subpar or redundant films. Yet he is as guilty as Liam Neeson for returning to the same performance well. Over the past decade or so, his output has been relatively consistent, and not in a good way.
For the most part, Washington’s roles can be boiled down to two types. The world-weary everyman with the perfect smile who ends up being a badass (The Talking of Pelham 1 2 3, Unstoppable, Inside Man) or the world-weary assassin with the perfect smile who ends up being a badass (Man on Fire, Safe House, 2 Guns, The Equalizer). I wouldn’t go so far as to say either of those categories of movies are inherently bad, but they both essentially produce the same brand of over-stylized action film (RIP Tony Scott) bolstered by Washington’s charming on-screen persona. Yet despite having an affable presence, Washington seems like he’s going through the motions. He knows how to generate an aura that makes the audience happy, but it’s not really challenging us or him. It takes a movie like 2012’s Flight (for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Lead Actor) to see and remember the complexity that Washington can bring to a role when he’s not stopping one-dimensional bad guys or runaway trains.
Unfortunately, Neeson hasn’t had his own Flight in quite a while. 2009’s The Grey was quite good, even as a relatively simplistic action movie/survival tale. Beyond that, we’ve had the Titans debacles, The A-Team, Battleship, Taken 2, Takes on a Plane (Non-Stop), and Taken in a Cemetery (A Walk Among the Tombstones). His two upcoming movies are the trilogy-concluding Tak3n and Run All Night (IMDb plot description: “An aging hitman is forced to take on his brutal former boss to protect his estranged son and his family.” So … A History of Taken?)
It’s nice that Neeson has found a niche, but almost none of those roles have any energy to them. People have accused him of phoning in his performances, and there is something to that claim. At least Washington puts a twinkle in his eye; Neeson just gets A) broody, and B) ready for the next battle. This was a man who brought life to Oskar Schindler, Alfred Kinsey, and Michael Collins. Who’d have thought that Ra’s Al Ghul would be one of the only roles over the past decade to bring life out in Neeson?
Of the three, Nicolas Cage has been the least disappointing to me because he’s rarely disappointing. It’s always hard to know what to expect from him, which makes him kind of exciting. Neeson may seem like he’s sleepwalking through his roles and Washington overly relies on his charm while shoved into action templates, but Cage usually brings some level of intensity or insanity in a way that makes him consistently captivating to watch. Almost the opposite of Bruce Willis, it’s rare that Cage will look bored doing a movie. Cage alone transformed the National Treasure movies from stupid-bad to stupid-ridiculous. Those movies were not good to be sure, but they were comfortable in their own skins as unabashed guilty pleasures.
Not to mention, Cage is the only one who has brought some self-awareness of his screen persona to his own performances, such as Big Daddy in Kick-Ass. It’s impressive to watch anyone successfully satirize themselves without devolving into parody, which Cage can do and which neither of the other two have tried, to the best of my knowledge.
Moreover, he is the only one whose choices still surprise me. For a major actor who can still headline movies, he’s done an impressive amount of straight-to-Netflix schlock, including Taken knock-offs Rage and Stolen – two movies so poorly made that they essentially have the same cover .
Sure, he does embarrassingly negligible paycheck movies. But on the same token, you won’t see Neeson or Washington in obscure but respected indy dramas, which Cage continues to do. This year’s Joe, directed by David Gordon Green, got mostly good reviews (though not from this site) with Cage being highlighted as a particular standout. His upcoming film Dying of the Lights is having some controversy over its final cut, but its pedigree of producer Nicolas Winding Refn and writer/director Paul Schrader shows Cage as someone ready to jump on board with genuine auteurs for much smaller fare. And his work in Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009) is some of the best he’s done in his entire career. I mean, hell, that fact that him doing Left Behind simultaneously comes completely out of left field yet makes complete sense makes Nicolas Cage something special.
The biggest irony is that of all these three stars, Cage, who arguably gets the most derision, is also the one who has deviated least from his original path. Whereas Washington first garnered public acclaim in the Civil War epic Glory and Neeson was in character dramas such as The Bounty and Husbands and Wives (as well as some action fare, such as Darkman), Cage has always gravitated towards the supremely weird. His early leading roles included Valley Girl, Vampire’s Kiss, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, and the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. Pure dramatic roles such as Leaving Las Vegas have always been the anomaly for him. Does he keep going to his own personal well, as Washington and Neeson do? Sure, but it’s a well of manic lunacy that adds a spice and flavor to most any role. And most impressively, we don’t know where he’ll end up next. While with Washington or Neeson it’ll likely be an adult-audience action flick (or the occasional prestige drama), Cage remains unpredictable, which is the quality you most want in a badass.