Nobody plays hell-bent like Nicolas Cage — as in, physically and behaviorally bent by hell. In 2011’s Drive Angry, he’s an undead criminal who breaks out of the fiery hereafter with murder on his mind, while in Ghost Rider (and its critically savaged sequel), Cage portrays a biker hellion whose skull bursts into flames after he gives up his soul to Satan. All of which makes the Oscar winner’s star turn in Oct. 3’s faith-based thriller Left Behind a bit perplexing. The $16 million movie reboot of a 2000 straight-to-video release starring Kirk Cameron (he of Growing Pains fame) features Cage as an airline pilot struggling to maintain control of his jet when the Rapture hits. His character is a man of little faith, but after realizing that true believers and innocent children have been plucked from Earth by God, he comes to see the light.
There’s a lot of that going around. Already, 2014 has been dubbed ”the year of the biblical movie,” with heavyweight actors including Russell Crowe (Noah) and Christian Bale (Exodus: Gods and Kings) lining up big parts in Old Testament-inspired films. Left Behind, however, finds Cage in the humbler company of Kevin Sorbo and Greg Kinnear, the respective stars of God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real. Those contemporary evangelical films may not get the attention of critics or the Academy, but they have surpassed all box office expectations by connecting with a core churchgoing audience. Question is, has Cage — the faded A-lister responsible for borderline-bonkers performances in Vampire’s Kiss and Deadfall — been cinematically born again?
”I’ve always been attracted to movies not afraid to face extraordinary circumstances,” Cage said during a recent teleconference for Left Behind, adding: ”My brother Marc is a Christian pastor. He said, ‘Nicky, you’ve really got to do this.’ When I saw how passionate he is, I wanted to do the film for my brother, too.”
The movie certainly represents a second coming for its writer-producer, Paul Lalonde. He adapted 2000’s Left Behind from a best-selling series of apocalyptic novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. And that film ended up spawning a DVD trilogy that has sold more than 11 million copies combined — a watershed for faith-based cinema.
But when Lalonde decided to revisit the franchise, streamlining the original film’s action and toning down the dogma in a bid for crossover appeal — ”trying to reach beyond the choir,” as he puts it — the movie mogul knew he needed a bankable star like Cage, even if the actor’s image hasn’t exactly been angelic (save his character in 1998’s City of Angels). ”If I need a heart transplant, I would like the best surgeon I can get, not the best Christian surgeon,” Lalonde says. ”Nobody had to undergo a piety test to work in this movie.”
Fair enough, but will evangelical audiences flood the box office for a fellow they don’t view as one of their own? Phil Cooke, a television and movie producer/Christian-media consultant who holds a Ph.D. in theology, believes casting Cage could backfire. ”I think the greater Christian community will be deeply skeptical,” Cooke says. ”He’s known for Drive Angry. That is not the character you want to think about when you think about Left Behind.”
Moreover, Cooke feels the movie’s narrative similarities to the HBO series The Leftovers (which unfolds after 2 percent of the world’s population mysteriously vanishes) could result in ”Rapture fatigue.” Or worse, that the shoddy production values and preachy tone of the earlier Left Behind could compromise the new version’s commercial prospects.
All that skepticism is just silly, though, says Mark Borde, co-president of the movie’s distributor, Freestyle Releasing. ”Audiences trust movies with movie stars,” he says. ”Take a movie with this kind of track record and pre-awareness and say, ‘This time it stars Nic Cage.’ Their ears perk up.”
Cage, meanwhile, is content to leave behind any discussion of his religious choices. ”If you look at my filmography, my work follows spiritual themes,” the actor said. ”But my spirituality is not for the media. Movies allow me to explore the inner world.”