How Nicolas Cage Became the Direct-to-Video King

The curious case of an Oscar-winning actor, the IRS, and a stolen dinosaur skull.

This Thanksgiving, Nicolas Cage fans have plenty to be grateful for. Within the span of two weeks we’ll see a trifecta of wildly divergent new Cage performances unleashed into the ether, adding to the most esoteric resume in Hollywood. In the true-ish tale Army of One, he plays an Osama bin Laden-hunting kook on a manic mission from God. In Paul Schrader’s batshit crime pic Dog Eat Dog, Cage slithers into the skin of an amoral ex-con. And in USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, he fends off fate and CGI sharks as the stoic captain of a doomed WWII warship.

It’s always been rewarding to be a Cagehead, to delight in the talents of the most unapologetically zany Oscar-winning movie star of the past 20-plus years. The past decade alone has been dotted with critical hits (Joe), cult flicks (Kick-Ass, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans), and studio gigs that bring much-needed box office boosts (like 2013’s $587 million animated pic The Croods) to his overstuffed resume. No matter what he does tomorrow, we’ll always have Raising Arizona, Con Hair, and the sublime one-man master class of commitment that is Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man.

But Nic Cage hasn’t carried a bona fide live-action megahit since the second National Treasure exploded into theaters in 2007. Two years after the adventure sequel brought in his biggest box office to date, the IRS hit the notoriously extravagant spender with an enormous bill for back taxes, ushering in the new age of direct-to-VOD Cage we’re living in now. And since then, the Cage oeuvre has become famously overrun with more misses than hits—more so than any other respectable movie star working today.

It’s worth noting that Cage has always been prolific: He hasn’t taken a single year off since 1981, when he made his screen debut in the TV movie Best of Times, back when he was better known as Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew and was still going by his birth name: Nicolas Coppola. He rose to the heights of A-lister leading man status in his ‘90s action heyday by making fruitful, and badass, professional choices. And when legitimacy arrived, Cage followed his Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas with a string of future Cage genre classics: The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off.

By the early 2000s he was a $20 million-a-movie star. In 2009, according to Forbes, he made $40 million as one of Hollywood’s biggest earners. Alas: Also that year, the IRS filed a federal tax lien on Cage’s unpaid property taxes and ordered him to pony up $6.2 million. In spite of bringing home a reported $150 million haul between the years 1996 and 2011, Cage’s tax woes forced massive lifestyle changes—and a $20 million lawsuit against his former money manager, Samuel Levin, whom Cage accused of guiding him down the path to financial disaster.

For most of his career Cage had been one of the most notorious big spenders in Hollywood, and who could blame him for it? He was already famous off-screen for his lavish lifestyle. “He lived like a sheik,” a source told The Daily Beast seven years ago.

Once the IRS came calling he had to sell off properties, including the 1940 Bel-Air mansion Dean Martin previously owned and his two New Orleans estates, one of which he liked to claim was haunted by ghosts. Who among us wouldn’t buy their own Gulfstream jet, a castle in England, a castle in Bavaria, an island or two in the Bahamas, a handful of yachts, a stable of 40+ cars and motorcycles, a $450,000 Lambo from the Shah of Iran, a pair of pet cobras, a comic book collection worth millions, and a $276,000 dinosaur skull if we could?

Bonus upside: Cage is said to have successfully outbid Leo DiCaprio for said Tarbosaurus bones. Unexpected downside: He had to surrender it in 2015 when it was discovered to have been illegally stolen from Mongolia. The one big ticket item Cage couldn’t be forced to part with: The 9-foot-tall pyramid-shaped tombstone he bought for himself, waiting for him in a New Orleans cemetery with the inscription “Omnia ab uno”—everything from one. And if ever there was one actor who truly gave us everything, it was Nicolas Cage.

In this week’s USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, Cage gives a painfully earnest portrayal of Captain McVay, the Navy officer who led the USS Indianapolis on a secret mission to deliver pieces of the atom bomb that would later be dropped on Hiroshima to end the second World War. It’s not a great movie. It’s not a good movie, either. But, directed by Mario Van Peebles, it is far more ambitious than one might expect from a drama being released, more or less, straight to VOD.

In the true story of the tragic wartime sinking of the USS Indianapolis, hundreds of American lives are lost when a Japanese submarine attacks in the waters outside the Philippines. Cage spends two hours jutting out his lower lip delivering overwrought lines with committed conviction. When McVay is first approached to lead the secret mission his response is preternaturally obvious, foreshadowing the moral torture that plagued McVay the rest of his life: “Does this have something to do… with the Manhattan Project?”

Well yes, it does. And the boat goes down spectacularly like the Titanic, losing a staggering number of lives in the process. Unfortunately, Cage and his men spend the rest of the film floating on the ocean fending off cheaply rendered CGI sharks. And yet USS Indianapolis offers one sincerely emotional exchange, between Cage’s McVay and the Japanese sub captain who destroyed his ship, that makes it all worth it with real, unvarnished, and deeply felt Cage tears. It is the moment, one presumes, that might have made the role worth it for Cage.

The very serious WWII seafaring drama is a shockingly stark contrast to Army of One, another film that might have seen a decent release in theaters at a time when the distribution numbers game wasn’t quite so daunting for mid-range fare. Borat director Larry Charles helms the true story comedy about Gary Faulkner, the American man who traveled solo to Pakistan in 2010 to capture Osama bin Laden armed with a samurai sword and instructions from God. Cage makes a Cage-y introduction in the film’s first scene, grinning wildly while dressed head to toe in stars and stripes gear, flying a hang glider emblazoned with the American flag.

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Two decades ago, Leaving Las Vegas proved he had the dramatic chops to plumb the dark and melancholy depths of the human condition, not just play silly action heroes and kooky eccentrics. His other Oscar-nominated role, in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, saw him portray neurotic screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald, unleashing both Cages at once. Army of One achieves something close to those twin Cages: A modern Don Quixote everyman with a high-pitched voice and manic delusions of grandeur, as grating as he is relatable, as noble in his intentions as he is clueless to the world around him.

Cage spent time researching the role with the real-life Faulkner and conveys a clear affection for the man's quirks, his mannerisms, and his mission in life. He’s the kind of oddball only someone like Cage can play, who can make his deranged instability transfixing to watch. But it’s understandable that even Cage needed a break from such exhaustive eccentricity when he signed onto his next project shortly thereafter for director Paul Schrader, whose brutal hard-R Dog Eat Dog veers even farther afield into unhinged territory.

Based on a novel by Edward Bunker, the hyper-violent Dog Eat Dog tracks three buddy ex-cons as they band together and crew up for all sorts of unsavory gigs, hunting down a payday that’ll make them rich. What’s surprising is that here Nic Cage is out-Nic Caged… by his co-star Willem Dafoe, who steals the show with the most off-kilter performance of the movie, the month, and maybe even the year in film.

Dog Eat Dog is far from a paycheck gig. It’s a movie mainstream audiences won’t care to entertain and won’t be able to stomach. Cage plays Troy, a hustler practically and karmically saddled with two best buddies from the clink (Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook). Together they’re a dangerous trio of morons with no morals, a thread punctuated by an opener in which Dafoe’s Mad Dog murders his plus-sized girlfriend with a fishing knife and then flippantly executes her teenage daughter.

Cage leaves most of the insanity in Dafoe’s capable hands, but revels in the spotlight with his own spellbinding moments—reminding us that even when Cage is playing the straight man in a band of psychos and thugs, there’s plenty crazy lurking beneath.

The three films beg the question: If Cage kept his current A-list king of direct-to-VOD crown, well, would that be such a bad thing? VOD is the new direct-to-video, but it’s not exactly the new direct-to-video. The term used to be shorthand for low-budget movies not good enough to warrant a theatrical release, or at least not good enough to convince distribution execs to spend the marketing cash it would take to get butts in seats. But in the age of streaming, Netflix, Netflix and Chill, Amazon, Hulu, and video on demand, non-theatrical releases only widen opportunities for eyeballs for smaller independent films to be seen at a fraction of the cost—and great indie films have benefited for it.

The upside, mostly for Cage diehards, is easy access to all that Cage has been doing while paying off what he owes the feds. And with twenty films under his belt in the last six years alone—twenty films, with at least five more to come in 2017—it’s a great time to be a Nic Cage fan. He still pops into studio films from time to time, like the recent Snowden or the upcoming sequel to animated hit The Croods, to which he’ll again lend his voice. He is Nicolas Cage, after all. He’s just keeping busy, filling in his downtime with more: More roles, more movies, more wild and woolly characters to lend his singular Cage mojo.

Cage even put his eccentric approach to the work into words during a recent interview for Army of One. “I was a big believer in something I called ‘art synchronicity,’ which was that what you could do in one art form, you could do in another art form,” he told the Los Angeles Times recently, explaining how he’s able to approach a film like the comic book movie Ghost Rider with the same artistic intention, for example, that he sees in painter Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Cage did two Ghost Rider movies, by the way, which earned a combined $360 million at the box office, as well as an unrelated indie aptly titled Pay the Ghost that barely made it to theaters. The beauty of this guiding philosophy is that it works from an audience perspective, too: the Venn diagram of Nicolas Cage’s career, particularly the Nicolas Cage of today as seen in the three wildly different films out this month, is precisely the cinematic junction where high art meets low art, where heroes collide with the unhinged, where anything and everything is possible. And when there are always riches to be found in any Nic Cage performance, the more the merrier.