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The Tao of Nicolas Cage: Dog Eat Dog

By  · Published on December 30th, 2016

Cages re-teams with Paul Schrader and things get weird.

“Well, you see, that’s interesting, because I’m a big film buff. Bogart was the best, the king.”

When I started The Tao of Nicolas Cage my goal was to tackle Cage’s filmography in chronological order to attempt and understand his evolution as an actor and an artist over the years. I also reserved the right to jump around as I see fit and that’s why for the second week in the row I’m saying to hell with chronological order!

Earlier this week Cage had two brand-new films hit Blu-ray, Snowden and Dog Eat Dog – ok so it’s more like 1 ½ movies since Snowden is basically a glorified cameo, still I’ll take all the Cage I can get. Dog Eat Dog is what I want to talk about and guys, it’s bonkers. Like really, really bonkers. Like even for a Cage movie it’s bonkers. That’s pretty goddamn bonkers.

The film opens with Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) sitting on the couch watching some political talk show discussing gun violence in America. You get the sense this is a bit of an unhinged character but just in case you don’t fully grasp that he quickly does a line of coke. He then proceeds to yell at a telemarketer that calls, destroys the phone and then does a little heroin in the bathroom. All pretty normal. Oh and then he brutally murders his girlfriend by slicing her throat and repeatedly stabbing her. As to not leave any witnesses he then kills her pre-teen daughter with a gunshot to the face.

It’s safe to say that Dog Eat Dog wants you to know what type of movie it is from the jump. This opening scene punches you in the face. If you choose to stick around beyond that point you should know what you’re getting yourself into. Oh you better believe I stuck around.

After this opening scene we learn that Mad Dog is a recently released convict. He’s friends with Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), another recently released convict, and together they’re celebrating the release of the final member of their trio, Troy (Cage). We already know Mad Dog is the wild card of the group and through narration Troy tells us that Diesel is the tough guy and Troy is the de facto leader. He takes care of Mad Dog and Diesel, making sure they have money and work.

Troy gets them a little job robbing a small-time drug dealer. Evyerhing goes fine. They get the drugs, flip them for cash and are able to have a nice weekend out at a local casino. But the thing is it’s just that, a little job. They don’t get enough money to sustain themselves longterm. They’ll have to continue doing small jobs just to get by and eventually they’ll get pinched again. None of them want that. They all have two strikes, they can’t go back to prison. The only solution is to get a big job.

Troy is able to land them a gig that will pay them $750,000. All they have to do is kidnap the baby of a man that owes a local Cleveland mobster some money. It’s a fairly simple job and it doesn’t require anyone getting hurt. Kidnap the baby and the man will quickly pay up. Unfortunately the kidnapping goes awry and everything comes crashing down.

This movie is off-the-wall crazy. It’s like a demented version of Raising Arizona. That’s the best way to describe it. It’s about stealing a baby and it is funny, but rather than funny in a goofy way it’s funny in a dark, twisted way. The opening scene is incredibly violent and yet it’s played up for laughs.

Being that this is a Paul Schrader film it does rely heavily on style. It was made with a relatively small budget but feels quite cinematic. There’s lots of interesting angles and a fairly unique editing approach. There’s a scene in a strip club that is randomly in black and white while the rest of the film is in color. There’s no explanation for either, it’s just this odd choice. During a Q&A at Beyond Fest Schrader said it was a decision made simply to have people see it and think, “hey, why is this scene in black and white?” It worked because that’s exactly what I thought.

This is a perfect movie for Nicolas Cage. He succeeds in these type of roles. In fact on the Blu-ray there is an introduction to the film from Cage and he states that this is exactly the type of movie that he wants to be making now. And why wouldn’t he? A movie that allows the actors the freedom to let loose is right up his alley. Well, the interesting thing is that for as crazy as this film gets, and man does it get crazy, Cage is actually quite reserved.

When Schrader approached Cage with the script the idea was that he would play the Mad Dog character that Dafoe ended up with. Cage turned it down saying, “I just didn’t want to play another whack job.”

Well that’s kind of a bummer because we all love whack job Cage. Luckily Cage had other ideas on how he could deliver on something Cage-ian while still playing things pretty cool.

In the film Troy is obsessed with the golden age of Hollywood and film-noir. He’s specifically infatuated with Humphrey Bogart. That character trait wasn’t in the original script nor is it in the novel the film is based on. That’s a Cage original.

“I realized in that world I was playing something of a straight man but I wanted to give it a twist,” Cage discussed during the Beyond Fest Q&A. “I don’t want to talk too much about why I’m speaking like Bogart at the end of the movie, I want that to be your own personal secret.”

What does that even mean? How could it be our secret? We didn’t make the decision to go full-on Bogie. This is a classic Cage mind-game.

The Beyond Fest Q&A, which is included on the Blu-ray, goes into pretty great detail into not only how Cage approached this role but how he’s approached many roles over the years. He cites Andy Warhol as a major inspiration and talks about how he was always fascinated with the way Warhol would take a famous image of Mick Jagger or Elvis or whoever and then turn them into those famous prints we all know. Cage breaks it down as one artist taking another artist and transforming them into a brand-new art form.

In the Q&A Cage goes on to say he first used that Warhol approach when he made Wild At Heart. Basically he decided to play the character of Sailor Ripley as if he were Elvis. He would do the same thing in Kick-Ass portraying Big Daddy as Adam West. It was that same line of thinking that resulted in Troy slowly morphing into Humphrey Bogart throughout the course of Dog Eat Dog. From the start we see the Bogart influence in Troy’s style. But as the movie goes on he gets more and more Bogart-esque. It’s little things at first, his mannerisms, the words he uses and then eventually he’s actually doing a Bogart impression. It’s incredible.

That my friends, that is what makes Nicolas Cage so fucking cool! You can hate his movies, you can even think he’s a terrible actor (you’d be wrong). But what you cannot do under any circumstance is say that he phones it in. He never phones it in. He puts thought into every role. He puts in the effort and extra time to develop his characters. The characters may not always work out or we may not understand his process, but the effort is there every time.

Dog Eat Dog is the perfect example of who Cage is as an actor and the work ethic he brings to the table. Most people will probably disregard it as just another direct-to-video mess. And that’s too bad because even if you don’t like the movie, which I would understand even though personally I think it’s awesome, this is America’s most interesting actor doing what he does best. Appreciate it, people. Appreciate it.

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Chris Coffel is a contributor at Film School Rejects. He’s a connoisseur of Christmas horror, a Nic Cage fanatic, and bad at Rocket League. He can be found on Twitter here: @Chris_Coffel. (He/Him)