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Nicolas Cage: From the sublime to the ridiculous

It's time Nicolas Cage ditched the duds and focused on the kind of blistering character work he's capable of, says Ben Walsh

I am not a demon. I am a lizard, a shark, a heat-seeking panther. I want to be Bob Denver on acid playing the accordion," Nicolas Cage once asserted. And there's little doubt that the Californian's film trajectory has been acid-blowingly baffling. Who is his agent? Stephen Merchant's hapless Darren Lamb from Extras? Has there ever been a film career as wilfully deranged as Cage's?

After slight roles in Rumble Fish and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a wild-eyed, toothy, bird's nest-haired Cage hit his one true purple patch with three gems on the trot: playing Cher's one-handed lover ("I ain't no freakin' monument to justice! I lost my hand! I lost my bride!") in Moonstruck, Kathleen Turner's feckless husband in Francis Ford Coppola's criminally underrated Peggy Sue Got Married and a big-hearted petty thief in the Coen Brothers' exquisite Raising Arizona. He was memorable, unusual and funny in all three of them.

Ever since this rewarding period – the mid- to late-1980s – he has gone from the sublime (Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation, Birdy) to the guiltily enjoyable (Face/Off, Con Air and The Rock) to the plain preposterous (Snake Eyes, Kiss of Death, Ghost Rider) to the absolutely, resolutely appalling. And, unfortunately, this is the method actor's biggest tally of all, featuring the wall of shame that is World Trade Center, Vampire's Kiss, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Bangkok Dangerous, The Wicker Man, Next, Lord of War, National Treasure and, by the looks of it, the recently released Season of the Witch. In it, a bearded, suitably scraggily haired Cage plays a 14th-century knight who transports a suspected witch to a monastery; once there, the monks reason that her powers could be the source of the Black Death.

The trailer for Witch certainly suggests a stinker, with its teasing/silly tagline "There are forces so evil, Hell cannot hold them", and reviewers have variously described the film as "hokum and not in a good way", "ridiculous" and "A silly romp through Pythonesque medieval cliché".

Admittedly, there's never been that much dignity or restraint about Cage's performances – witness, for example, his unhinged wailing ("Oh, no! Not the bees! Not the bees! Aaaaahhhhh! Oh, they're in my eyes!" etc) in The Wicker Man, or his determined yelling ("To the break of dawn, baby") in Bad Lieutenant or his squealing ("I'm ready, ready for the big ride baby!") in Face/Off.

However, in the past year there's been a healthy return to form with two mesmerising, blistering turns in Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass, where he plays a softly spoken (shock) masked avenger, and in Werner Herzog's delirious Bad Lieutenant, where he plays a New Orleans cop who starts out as a cocky, sharp-suited, wisecracking law enforcer and spirals – via his crack and painkiller addiction – into a depraved sinner, lurching from one unruly scenario to the next. It was a role ideally suited to the actor's manic intensity. And both roles suited his actual age; he's just turned 47. They hinted at – gulp – some level of acting maturity.

With his immense wealth – the actor has in the past indulged in a castle, a jet plane, two Bahamian islands and a pet octopus – can he not be a bit more discerning in his film roles? It is, of course, admirable that he is still bagging lead roles, but as Kick-Ass proved, perhaps it's about time he took on slightly smaller parts. Some scene-stealing cameos, perhaps? However, the deflating sounding Drive Angry 3D and a Ghost Rider sequel, Spirit of Vengeance, are both coming up and they don't suggest good decision making. Why does Cage persist with these dunderheaded actioners? Bad Lieutenant irrefutably proved he hasn't lost his acting mojo. Yes, his performances are still unashamedly gamey, but he remains the actor your eyes are drawn to. Cage, it's time to evolve, as Hollywood cinema desperately needs its charismatic non-conformists and risk-takers. As he memorably pointed out in The Rock, there's "A lotta angst, a lot of 'I'm 16, I'm angry at my father' syndrome. I mean grow up!"

'Season of the Witch' is on nationwide release