Nicolas Cage cut his teeth playing offbeat characters in independent films before changing gears to become a major blockbuster star. With Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance and Drive Angry coming up in 2011, Leonard Klady assesses Cage’s continuing appeal at the global box office

There is no questioning Nicolas Cage’s versatility as an actor. Over the course of three decades he has demonstrated skill and panache, whether playing comedy, action or intense drama in both independent fare and studio blockbusters.

However, it is primarily for his more athletic roles that Cage has earned his commercial stripes — much to the chagrin of the critical community who early on embraced his penchant for offbeat material. And that sector can expect to be left speechless in the coming year. Season Of The Witch, Cage’s most recent release, sees him cast as a medieval knight transporting a suspected sorceress through a landscape decimated by the Black Death. It opened in North America on January 7 to an unremarkable $10.6m, with an additional $6.7m generated from a handful of international openings including the UK, where it grossed $870,000 in its first weekend. The subject matter echoes the actor’s eclectic taste for the occult which has generated commercial hits such as Knowing as well as misfires including the remake of The Wicker Man.

On the horizon are a couple of seemingly more assured crowdpleasers. They include the sequel Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance and the high-octane Drive Angry, about a man pursuing his daughter’s killers, which opens on February 25 with the added audience allure of 3D. Also in the pipeline is Joel Schumacher’s Trespass, with Nicole Kidman.

The star of such unconventional films as Wild At Heart was viewed virtually overnight as someone who could carry a studio blockbuster

Cage’s international popularity outdistances his North American appeal, with his films on average outgrossing their domestic performance by 25%.Historically he has found his strongest fanbase in Europe and Asia though he is hardly an underperformer in South America. He has a strong track record in France, Japan and the UK — significant territories which have ensured his status as a box-office star of considerable heft.

The turning point in Cage’s career occurred in 1996, when in the space of a couple of months he received the Academy Award for his performance in Leaving Las Vegas and had his biggest commercial success, action hit The Rock. After a decade as one of the most accomplished and admired actors of his generation, he had dramatically shifted gears in industry eyes. The star of such unconventional films as Wild At Heart, Red Rock West and Raising Arizona was viewed virtually overnight as someone who could carry a studio blockbuster.

A national treasure

In short order, Con Air and Gone In 60 Seconds followed along with the inevitable misfires which come with stardom. These types of films effectively turned his public image on its head. Previously viewed as an anchor of offbeat independents who occasionally took mainstream fare such as Honeymoon In Vegas and Peggy Sue Got Married, Cage segued effortlessly into roles which were the bedrock of popular films, though he would still leave the reservation for the greater challenges of Adaptation or Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans. Cage has also emerged as the producer of largely niche fare - the sort of films he headlined in the early part of his career - such as Shadow Of The Vampire and Sonny (which he also directed).

Like his contemporary Johnny Depp, he went from box-office poison to one of the dozen or so actors who can largely ensure a green light for a major production. But despite more than a decade dominated by roles in popular genres, the actor is still sometimes perceived as dangerous, even erratic. While his off-screen imbroglios contribute to that perception in part, his filmography seems curiously non-strategic or at its worst capricious.

In the critical community he tends to get a bad rap for doing too many high-testosterone movies, but few of those films fit into comfortable grooves and he simply cannot portray anyone unabashedly heroic. The actor cuts an idiosyncratic figure as perhaps the US’s only stealth superstar.

Indie king to action man: selected Nicolas Cage films*

  AustraliaBrazilFranceGermanyItalyJapanMexicoSpainUKIntl CumeNorth America
Season of the Witch201124-Feb28-Jan5,151,86824-FebTBDTBDTBDTBD2,134,07426,881,51122,189,330
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice20104,720,3484,815,99013,105,8995,674,9119,370,66711,366,0319,831,3848,822,8545,461,671152,891,35063,170,869
Bad Lieutenant2009DNP632,8812,357,60963,136482,750DNP603,5741,841,642814,09210,070,1951,702,112
Bangkok Dangerous2008DNP1,449,6383,891,096DNP1,508,674455,3261,857,1603,616,5581,278,56627,199,08315,293,681
Ghost Rider20075,553,8087,010,9397,736,0476,221,0434,024,1784,408,8137,324,7467,441,3249,188,495111,926,542117,257,346
World Trade Center20061,681,1992,862,2506,448,4214,991,3177,093,22619,929,2615,164,3265,958,7289,190,05392,895,95670,369,990
Lord of War20051,259,0842,148,6378,642,0723,531,8151,785,3101,406,1931,364,0643,512,8074,305,92241,635,83724,127,895
National Treasure20045,111,9742,466,99212,826,79314,082,98311,296,29219,309,3517,341,82816,655,12513,718,831172,808,396173,005,002
Match Men20031,729,051587,6832,130,9451,417,0664,082,8551,605,8581,550,9362,901,5812,318,77423,519,07537,124,886
Adaptation20021,395,274323,282544,665618,790425,415 DNP 656,6511,038,5302,061,71811,595,38922,245,861
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin20012,431,086130,919718,3591,095,0651,699,2135,572,377766,1481,206,76714,041,20736,568,79225,579,761
Family Man20003,077,5211,773,2822,104,3382,538,1113,338,3422,278,9205,360,2173,459,4484,867,02743,899,14775,764,085
Gone in 60 Seconds20008,349,8317,053,10511,352,1949,362,8853,046,29916,966,7557,880,8067,053,10511,652,571130,575,591101,305,401

*figures to Jan 24