The great Sean Penn fired the first shot in what would become an unending barrage against his former co-star and friend. “Nic Cage is no longer an actor,” Penn said, in reference to Cage’s ridiculously high output of low-quality films. Since then, Cage has been transformed into a whipping boy for both critics and keyboard movie junkies alike.

Everyone seems to spend a lot of time trashing the actor due to his wildly off-the-wall film choices and out-of-his-mind performances, but no one wants to use that energy to remember nor praise the great character actor that Nicolas Cage is and has always been.

I will admit, Nic makes it more difficult year by year and film by film, with much of his recent work going straight to On Demand and existing as beyond subpar. But for every bad film he does these days, and for whatever the reasons may be (big paychecks, alimony, and tax troubles have all been mentioned as reasons for his strange choices of scripts), he will do a work that reminds us of his excellence.

For every “Ghost Rider” there is a “Joe”. While there is a “Left Behind”, there is also Paul Schrader’s “Dog Eat Dog”. The bad taste of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” can be washed away with the terrific “Mandy”. And in 2021, Cage’s absolute worst film, “Willy’s Wonderland” can be forgiven due to the fantastic “Pig”.

I can remember when the tides turned for Cage regarding the films he chose to make. In 1996, just after winning a well-earned Oscar for his stunning work in “Leaving Las Vegas”, director Michael Bay put Cage in an action film that earned him a big payday and even bigger box office. To be fair, “The Rock” was a fun and raucous great time. Cage turned in a goofily entertaining performance and, in interviews, spoke quite highly of the film and the good time he had with it.

It is obvious the actor was bitten by the action film bug and followed that film’s success with two more explosive, big-budget, Hollywood hits, 1997’s “Con-Air” and John Woo’s biggest American success, “Face/Off”.

While he would slip farther into lesser films, Cage always kept doing important work. The late 1990s and early 2000s found him doing excellent work in some great films such as Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead” (for me, his finest performance.), Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation”, and Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men”.

I am even a defender of Brian De Palma’s much-maligned 1998 film “Snake Eyes”, which I find to hold one of Cage’s best “wild man” performances.

Cage was still choosing big films, but he always seemed to pick the wrong ones. “The Family Man” was okay but left no lasting imprint, “City Of Angels” was a misguided remake of the Wim Wenders masterpiece “Wings of Desire”, and the laughably atrocious “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” were all artistic misfires in their own way and though he peppered his filmography with more good films (“World Trade Center”, “Lord Of War”, and the underrated “Knowing”) it started to become a shock when audiences saw him in a good film, due to an ever-growing list of head-scratching choices.

The hardest fall came with Neil LaBute’s lunkheaded remake of “The Wicker Man” in 2006. It is an abysmal film and would be completely forgettable were it not for Cage’s wildly committed performance. It must be seen to be believed. The actor’s work here is either brilliantly ridiculous or masterfully awful. Either way and for better or worse, you can’t take your eyes off him.

Since that debacle, the actor’s filmography has been filled with garbage such as the two “Ghost Rider” films, “Seeking Justice”, “Outcast”, the aforementioned “Left Behind”, “Pay the Ghost”, “Men of Courage”, “Inconceivable”, “Primal”, and more. All those films were within a 15-year period. All are astonishingly awful.

Every actor has some bad films on their resume and every actor goes through a few years of questionable choices, but that list could bring down even the best. Nicolas Cage is one of the best, but make no mistake, he isn’t down.

One of the strongest cases of the fine line the actor walks when he goes off the intensity rails can be found in his freaked-out take on the notorious Harvey Keitel character in director Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”. Cage’s performance was beyond bizarre as his character hallucinates in a drug-fueled haze, seeing lizards and breakdancing ghosts while smoking from a magic crack pipe, going completely off the rails as a corrupt cop.

As outlandish as his performance was, it’s more realistic and soulful than the Keitel version. I am not knocking Abel Ferarra’s masterpiece or Keitel’s excellent work in it. When I looked at both performances, they presented me with a paradox: was Cage’s wild over-acting a more dangerously brilliant performance than Keitel with his penis out, doing drugs, and crying over his Catholic guilt? Finally, I say yes. Both actors were brilliant but Cage’s role, as written and performed, had more emotional substance and was allowed to find a form of grace, if you will. Again, both performances were excellent in their own ways, but Cage’s nomination-worthy work must be acknowledged.

To remind the naysayers, we return to those thrilling days of Nicolas Cage’s yesteryear. His dedication and brilliance are on display in many films from that time.

“Rumble Fish” and “Valley Girl” (1983), “Birdy” (1985), “Racing with the Moon” and “The Cotton Club” (1984), “Moonstruck” and “Raising Arizona” (1987), “Vampire’s Kiss” (1988), “Wild at Heart” (1990), “Red Rock West” (1993), and, of course, “Leaving Las Vegas” from 1995; all fine examples of his unique acting style and versatility. He proved himself to be spontaneous, expressionistic, wild, moving, funny, dangerous, and sexy. Cage is a pure blend of movie star and thespian. There is no one like him.

I would add his work in his Uncle Francis’s 1986 film “Peggy Sue Got Married”, but (while I have fun with his performance) this was Cage going off the rails without a net though I still admire what he did.

For all the unnecessary vitriol he receives these days, it cannot be argued that Nicolas Cage is a man deeply committed to his craft. He calls his eccentric acting style “Nouveau Shamanic” and refers to himself as a “thespian” rather than a mere “actor”. Cage prepares for every role (be they big or small) with the meticulous approach of the most talented and dedicated of act… Thespians!

Does Nic Cage overact? Of course, but he does so in sometimes brilliant ways. In certain respects, his style can be compared to Rod Steiger. Steiger was always rather genius in his tendencies to overact, as he gave many overblown and “out there” performances but was (and is) one of cinema’s finest performers. Cage is the same way. When he goes into his Cage “stratosphere”, there is a true art to it.

When asked if he saw the video collage of his wildman antics, the thespian responded, “Oh yeah. That’s very exciting. I was happy to see that this person found it and was going back to some of the really early work… It was very exciting to see that be reawakened.”

During his episode of “Inside the Actors Studio”, James Lipton read Cage one of his own quotes, referencing his recent choice of roles. “I would probably have turned to crime, but I kept it on film.”

I’m glad Nicolas Cage stayed with acting. For me, he is the John Dillinger or Jesse James of today’s films. A wild man blasting his way across screens, staying one step ahead of those who denounce him while surprising them from time to time. Cage knows he will be attacked for many of the roles he chooses and the way he performs them. Critics and audiences; everyone is after him.

Nicolas Cage doesn’t hide. He will duck and move, continually eluding full shunning by Hollywood.

Cage the thespian has done a great deal of fantastic work in the last ten or so years, especially in David Gordon Green’s “Joe” (2013), Paul Schrader’s “Dog Eat Dog” (2016), Panos Cosmatos’ “Mandy” (2018), and Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig” (2021). All are uniquely great films that feature outstanding performances from Cage. Each one is a bright and shining diamond in the rough of a lot of Cage’s recent works.

Much like Mickey Rourke during his “dark period”, I shall never give up on the man. Cage has more than proven himself to me (and to audiences and fellow critics).

The proof is out there for eternity, Nicolas Cage is a great actor. Lest we forget, he always has been.