Cage Examination #17: Deadfall

Film: Deadfall
Demeanor: A cross between Tony Montana and Jim Carrey as The Mask.
Hair Quality: Wig-tastic!
Performance Quality: Infinite Cages.

Deadfall has simultaneously been my most looked forward to and dreaded film on this schedule. The reason to look forward to it is perhaps obvious to any serious Cage fan, but for those less well-versed in obscure Cage-ian lore, Deadfall is, without question, the single greatest example of insane overacting ever captured on film. Cage’s performance in this movie is the stuff of performance art legend. He’s less a character in Deadfall than some demonic presence that wandered in from a completely different movie. His existence is inexplicable and incredible.

The reason I dreaded writing about Deadfall is not because it’s a terrible movie (it is, but so are lots of movies in this feature), but rather because I found the idea of trying to dissect what Nicolas Cage is doing in this movie altogether daunting. Trying to in some way analyze, criticize, or even draw base-level conclusions about Cage’s performance is, at once, terrifying and seemingly pointless, because straight up, I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t understand it. I have no idea where these line deliveries, all that hysterical shouting, and that purposely awkward wig-and-sunglasses combo came from. Without a real understanding of how these things came to be, I am simply left to sit in awe of them. There is no wrapping my head around Nicolas Cage in Deadfall in much the way there’s no way to really take in the little details of a nuclear explosion. By the time you’ve realized what’s happening in front of you, you’re already toast.

What’s even crazier is that Nicolas Cage is in maybe half of this movie. Probably not even that. Ostensibly, Michael Biehn is the star of Deadfall. Both comically awful actress Sarah Trigger and tragically present actor James Coburn have a good deal more screen time than Cage does. And yet there is a near-universal understanding that Deadfall is Nicolas Cage’s movie. If the cast of Deadfall is the continent of Asia, then Cage is North Korea. While the rest of the continent is off minding its business, every five minutes Cage shows up to launch off a rocket of incoherent expletives and coke-addled mania that forces everyone to pay attention to him for as long as he’s around. Sadly, nobody from the Kim family ever met their end by getting their skull dunked in a boiling grease trap, but hey, never say never.

The fact that Cage is allowed to run roughshod over this movie more or less unchecked probably has something to do with the fact that Deadfall was written and directed by his brother, Christopher Coppola. Chris Coppola’s directorial career is…well, it’s something. With the exception of this movie, most of it involves direct-to-video B-movie schlock like Dracula’s Widow and G-Men from Hell (these are actual, non-made-up movie titles). Deadfall appears to be the movie that Chris cashed all his Hollywood favor chips in on. The cast, which also includes Peter Fonda and Charlie Goddamn Sheen (who I will say more about later), is baffling in its strength, especially given the absolute trainwreck of a script they’ve been handed.

I assume that Coppola intended Deadfall to be a kind of slick, noir-ish heist movie in a kind of mixture of Raymond Chandler and David Mamet. Unfortunately, Coppola’s dialogue seems largely culled from the works of Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Jade), and his idea of a twisty, thrilling heist is laughably preposterous. 

Biehn plays Joe, a slickster con-artist who, alongside his father (Coburn) and a number of bit player con-men (the fantastically weird combo of Clarence Williams III and former Monkee Mickey Dolenz) early on try to take down a mob heavy in an elaborate sting that involves fake bullets, pretend cops, and multiple people feigning death. Unfortunately, one of those people isn’t pretending. Through some terrible happenstance, Joe’s father is actually shot, and he dies mumbling words about Joe’s mother and a mysterious uncle that Joe never knew. 

Joe is, of course, destroyed by guilt. I know this because the heavy-handed narration Biehn is forced to deliver never fails to point out how totally guilt-stricken he is. And when it isn’t specifically pointing that out, we get shots of Biehn sweaty and upset, while haunting images of his heist gone wrong remind us of a scene that happened maybe 15 minutes ago. Just to be absolutely clear about this, JOE FEELS GUILTY.

Now that we understand Joe’s guilt, we can understand why he seeks out this mysterious uncle, who Joe’s dad rarely spoke of. Turns out, they’re twins! Coburn plays both dad and uncle, though the uncle character is a bit more typically Coburn-like—the dad is basically the evil, alternate Star Trek universe version of James Coburn. He’s a con-man and crime boss in his own right, though the only guy he seems to employ is a strange, sneering little man named Eddie, who spends most of their first conversation huddled in a corner making peculiar faces. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is Nicolas Cage.

From this point forward, Deadfall proceeds to tell two completely different stories. For a while, it’s the Joe and Eddie story. Joe’s trying to get in his uncle’s good graces, and Eddie sees Joe as a threat. This is especially true of Eddie’s girl (Trigger), a manipulative little harlot who plays things innocent early on, but very heavily telegraphs an alternate agenda. It takes about five seconds of Biehn and Trigger being in the same room together to know that some really awkward early ’90s movie sex will be happening between them at some point down the road. And it does. Oh boy, does it ever.

What Cage does in his oh-so-brief time spent stewing over Biehn’s presence is pretty much the only reason anyone should ever watch Deadfall. In fact, scratch that. There is actually no reason to watch Deadfall. Why? Because this video exists.

Even entirely divorced from story context, these moments are all you ever need to see of Deadfall. The story it tells after Cage’s demise (which pretty much just revolves around a series of elaborate double-crosses as Joe sets up a new version of the same sting that got his father killed) isn’t interesting nor terribly amusing. You aren’t going to enjoy its labored attempt at a crafty crime thriller plot, you aren’t going to enjoy the rest of the cast’s enfeebled attempts at acting, and you sure as shit aren’t going to want to sit through the last 40 minutes of the movie that feature exactly zero Nicolas Cage scenes. Once he gets that greasy face wash, that’s it for Cage. His body is unceremoniously dumped in the ocean, and we’re left with a the-rest-of-the-movie that is as dull and unremarkable as it is unbearably stupid.

Well, okay, perhaps I’m slightly overstating things. There IS Charlie Sheen, after all. Sheen shows up as a sort of bizarre go-between for Biehn and a crime impresario with a mechanical claw for a hand. No, seriously. He has a mechanical claw hand. 

Anyway, Sheen’s entire purpose is to be really good at pool and wear a bitchin’ smoking jacket. His character has no real raison d’etre save but to school Biehn at billiards and say cryptic, Sheen-ian things. Like this!

There you go. Now you truly have no reason to ever watch Deadfall, because you’ve seen every worthwhile moment this movie has to offer. And no, I’m not going to embed the sex scene.

Going back to Cage for a minute—that is why we’re here, right?—I said before I have no idea what the dude was thinking when crafting this character, though in rewatching the above scenes, I realize there is at least one point of potential inspiration that shows itself. From his obsession with card tricks (especially the Joker’s card), his tumultuous relationship with his elder crime boss, his wildly unpredictable behavior, and eventual face-melting disaster, it seems to me that Cage might be drawing upon Batman’s most famous villain. He’s not wearing clown makeup, but he has plastered himself with fake hair, what looks like it could be a fake mustache, and more caked-on face powder than is likely healthy for a single human being. Also, he’s out of his goddamn mind.

I’m not suggesting Cage is actually doing his version of the Joker, but the signs are there, and frankly it’s the only thing I can think of to get some bearing on what the hell he’s even attempting here. I suppose if I were doing my brother a favor and starring in his hackneyed heist movie as a low-level bad guy with a serious temper problem, I might go out of my way to have some fun with the character too. And I’ll say this much: it does look like he’s having a lot of fun.

Cage in Deadfall is all the more jarring when you consider the last couple of films in his catalog were relatively safe mainstream Hollywood ventures like Honeymoon In Vegas and Amos & Andrew. How one goes from being Sarah Jessica Parker’s love interest to delivering the acting equivalent of an Extinction Level Event is perhaps the greatest testament there is to why Nicolas Cage is Our Greatest Living Actor. Who else could do what this man does? Who else could rescue a movie as dire as Deadfall from the pit of unwatchability by turning a relatively marginal character into a psychotic, coke-snorting imp who shouts everything for no reason? No one. For better or for worse, no other actor is capable of doing what Nicolas Cage does—or, at the very least, no other actor will actually attempt to do what he does. And that’s why we love him.

Random Thoughts:

  • Talia Shire is also in this movie, though like Peter Fonda, her presence barely registers. 
  • Sarah Trigger’s career never did quite take off, really. A fact perhaps best evidenced by her sole piece of noteworthy IMDB trivia being that she was briefly married to Jon Cryer. 
  • I just noticed the guy wearing the “FUCK” t-shirt in the strip club standing next to Cage right before he belts out that epic “FUUUUUUUUUUUCK.” This is kind of a chicken and the egg thing for me. Was the line always there and the guy in the shirt added at the last minute for effect? Or was the shirt just there as a piece of improv inspiration for Cage? I NEED TO KNOW THE ANSWER TO THIS.
  • There are no less than three movies called Deadfall. They are all about con-artists, and none of them have anything to do with each other outside of title and character profession. That’s kind of weird, right?
  • Did I mention that the end of movie bad guy has A FUCKING METAL CLAW FOR A HAND?!? Clearly I need to do a lot more cocaine before writing, because fuck, man. FUCK.
  • This is probably the last truly batshit Nicolas Cage performance to talk about for a while. For those who are just on board with this feature for the crazypants roles, check back in June when we begin the action movie binge of The Rock, Face/Off, and Con Air. For the rest of you, don’t worry. There’s still plenty of weirdness coming up in the immediate future. Just not quite as much shouting.

Next Week: Red Rock West

  1. brondead reblogged this from yearofthecage and added:
    REALLY have to get around to seeing this
  2. yearofthecage posted this
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