The Nicolas Cage Movies to Know Before His 'Massive' Action Comedy

'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent' isn't only for super-fans, but it helps to know 'Con Air' from 'Face/Off.'

nicolas cage in the unbearable weight of massive talent
Nicolas Cage in 'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent' | Lionsgate
Nicolas Cage in 'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent' | Lionsgate

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a slick meta action-comedy starring Nicolas Cage as a heightened version of his oddball offscreen persona, opens with a (non-Cage) character enjoying a Nicolas Cage movie. On TV, we see Cage playing longhaired ex-Army Ranger Cameron Poe in Con Air, one of the ‘90s movies that helped the actor transition from eye-bugging eccentric leading man to world-saving action hero. Eventually, the scene gets interrupted by armed attackers, launching a kidnapping mystery that will drive the movie's plot, but in those brief opening moments of couch potato bliss, co-writer and director Tom Gormican signals that his movie will take place in a world like our own: one where Nicolas Cage is a beloved, if occasionally absurd, figure.

As Gormican has acknowledged in interviews, there’s no making this movie, a kidnapping thriller about a celebrity (Cage, as himself) teaming up with his biggest fan (a delightful Pedro Pascal) to take on the cartel, without Cage’s willing participation. Other actors have done the self-referential “playing yourself” thing before — John Malkovich with Being John Malkovich or Jean-Claude Van Damme with JCVD — but few have the type of careening, genre-hopping career Cage has. His filmography, from early ‘80s hits like Moonstruck and Raising Arizona to recent genre experiments like Mandy and Pig, is rife for plundering. His public persona, a self-aware performance of fame as a goofy magic show, lends itself to parody. As a star, he’s almost too perfect for a movie like this.

Perhaps for that reason, Unbearable Weight’s real subject is fandom, specifically the way viewers identify with and project themselves onto the actors they worship. Unsurprisingly, the film is laced with allusions to Cage’s work, but enjoying Unbearable Weight doesn’t require a PhD in Cage-ology and it never collapses under the weight of its own references. Still, there are a handful of key movies, some more obscure than others, you might want to have a passing familiarity with in order to get the most out of the projects’s madcap survey of Cage’s many, many talents.

nicoclas cage and shirley mcclane in guarding Tess
TriStar/Getty Images

Guarding Tess (1994)

This light-hearted comedy, released in the wake of The Bodyguard and In the Line of Fire, finds Cage playing a Secret Service Agent assigned to protect Shirley MacLaine's First Lady. In Unbearable Weight, Pascal’s obsessed fan Javi finds comfort in Guarding Tess and draws a parallel between the story and his own life. Along with Con Air, it’s one of the only Cage movies where a clip appears in the actual film, and its inclusion is indicative of Gormican’s freewheeling approach to Cage’s filmography. Guarding Tess is probably not anyone’s favorite Nicolas Cage movie, but it’s special to Javi, a collector and aspiring screenwriter who prides himself on knowing Cage’s career inside and out.

nicolas cage in con air
Buena Vista Pictures

The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997), and Face/Off (1997)

For the purposes of Unbearable Weight, this trilogy of action movies, released in rapid succession after Cage’s Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas, represents the pinnacle of Cage’s career. In The Rock, he played a scientist who gets recruited to save the world; in Con Air, he’s an Army Ranger tasked with landing a hijacked plane of convicts; in Face/Off, he’s an evil mastermind who gets his face removed and placed on the body of his sworn enemy. Each one is a chiseled, gleaming diamond of mid-90s big budget decadence, spectacle, and swagger. As Unbearable Weight gets more and more unhinged, descending into shoot-outs and car chases, Cage gets called on to serve in this action movie mold. That Gormican never quite reaches the explosive, bullet-ridden highs of the material he’s riffing on probably has more to do with a lack of resources than a lack of ambition. Quite simply, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

nicolas cage in the wicker man
Warner Brothers Pictures

The Wicker Man (2006)

For many, The Wicker Man marked a turning point in Cage’s career where audiences began to view him as more meme than man. Director Neil LaBute’s interpretation of the British folk horror classic is an odd, prickly work and Cage’s performance is one of his most expressive and unencumbered. Everyone remembers “the bees,” a scene that launched a thousand memes, but what about the part where he kicks Leelee Sobieski into a wall? For better or worse, The Wicker Man seeded an idea of Cage as a “bad” actor that has festered and mutated in corners of the internet for over a decade. Unbearable Weight, a movie that often feels generated by the Reddit hive-mind, likely wouldn’t exist without it.

nicolas cage in joe
Roadside Attractions

Joe (2013)

Loyal Cage fans know that he’s always putting in the work. Even in the 2010s, a period when Cage starred in more than a handful of unremarkable VOD thrillers, he could still be relied on to give an excellent, understated performance in a movie like Joe, a thriller that finds Cage’s title character protecting a young boy (Tye Sheridan) from his abusive father. It’s important because David Gordon Green, the prolific director of Joe, has a key cameo in the beginning of Unbearable Weight. Also, in a recent GQ profile, the director revealed Cage brings his own “amazing hand-carved knife” to the steakhouse, further adding to the ever-expanding Cage personal mythos.

the croods
Universal Pictures

The Croods: A New Age (2020)

What is Nicolas Cage’s highest grossing movie of all time? While you might assume it’s one of his Jerry Bruckheimer produced blockbusters, like the globe-trotting heist adventure National Treasure, it’s actually the animated family movie The Croods, where Cage voices the caveman patriarch Grug Crood. The sequel, The Croods: A New Age, gets a direct shout-out in the movie by Tiffany Haddish’s CIA Agent character. Again, The Croods receiving more onscreen love than many of Cage’s other acclaimed performances reveals the guiding principle of Unbearable Weight’s approach: the more random the better.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.