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a close up of nicolas cage sitting on a motorcycle, looking stunned in ghost rider spirit of vengeance with 3D effect Image: Sony Pictures via Polygon

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Nicolas Cage understood the maximalist potential of 3D movies

Drive Angry and his Ghost Rider sequel are iconic in their own way

The 3D boom that launched the decade is in its dying days. While many blockbusters still open with 3D versions, and James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar sequels should give the format a major boost, the numbers back up the decline. Eye-popping images aren’t the sell they were in 2009.

What’s lost as 3D fades into cultural irrelevance? Numerous directors, from Martin Scorsese to Wim Wenders, extolled the virtues of the visual gimmick, but the format also reshaped actors — or could have if given the room to evolve. In the first decade of 3D blockbusters, big names like Will Smith or Sandra Bullock were strapped into what were essentially theme park rides, the technique more of a marquee attraction rather than a lens through which to navigate around performances. We never got to the moment where 3D became a tool for actors.

There is a notable exception, however, and it concerns two films that exist in a specific subgenre: Nicolas Cage driving dangerous vehicles after escaping from hell.

Drive Angry, which premiered in February 2011, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which rolled into theaters one year later, are tailored for their leading man, even with the former giving Amber Heard and William Fichtner substantial supporting parts and the latter mining an existing IP. Both films underperformed at the box office, a sign that Cage’s days headlining moderate- to high-budgeted studio movies were over, and the reason why the pair are the actor’s only 3D, live-action films to date. While Ghost Rider sequel participation involved some contractual obligation from the first movie, the possibilities of working in 3D seem to have factored into his joining Drive Angry, in which he plays an undead thief on the run from one of Satan’s minions.

nicolas cage walking away from an exploded car fire in drive angry Lionsgate

In a 2010 set interview, Cage told Collider that he was excited about what could emerge from the 3D filmmaking process, and that he hoped “to mess” with the expectations.

”I was talking about sticking my tongue out and seeing [how] it would go into the fourth row of the audience and if there’s anything I can do to play with the format,” he said. “And certainly the first thing I did when I arrived on the set on the first day was just I really wanted to look at the camera and see was there something different about it. How was I going to make friends with this camera? What information was it going to receive from me and how would I move differently […] how can I get into the audience with my body language?”

This past June, the Edinburgh International Film Festival offered the rare opportunity of a Drive Angry and Spirit of Vengeance double feature. Having attended Cage-a-rama 3D, and given Cage’s comments from the Drive Angry set, I surprisingly found the Ghost Rider film, which played first, the better offering in terms of a Cage 3D showcase. Not to suggest it’s a let down in terms of the actor’s apparent goals, but Drive Angry feels like a test run, with Cage’s biggest physical gestures often relegated to the context of slow motion-heavy sequences of gore and debris flying at the audience. In Drive Angry, Cage gets to do crazy things in aid of director Patrick Lussier’s 3D spectacle, like participate in a gunfight mid-coitus. But in Spirit of Vengeance, he is the crazy 3D spectacle.

Spirit of Vengeance has Cage on manic form in the vein of his performances you either sincerely love or at least sincerely love to meme. Even in the motion-capture role of the flaming-skulled Ghost Rider, and with directing team Neveldine/Taylor shooting in 2D for 3D post-conversion, there’s something palpable to Cage’s movements and apparent desire to experiment. It feels strange to suggest there could be subtlety to the depiction of a flaming skeleton in biker gear demolishing people, but there are these little twitches and gesticulations that land like you, the viewer, are suddenly getting sliced at or punched in the face. At the point where a delirious cackling Cage transforms mid-motorcycle ride, his lurching screams into the camera have this quality akin to the split second in Ring just before Sadako’s hand comes through the television.

If 3D of the last decade was, for some filmmakers, about blurring the lines between the spectator and the world up on screen, Cage was the only Hollywood star who seemed to embody the experiential spirit, and capable of testing the waters of whether an arguable gimmick had greater merit for his field. He leans towards maximalism over minimalism. It makes sense to have someone big go all in and, hopefully, succeed, so that lower-key experiments can take off. That’s applicable to 3D’s rise for directors, too. You don’t get a Pina unless an Avatar worked first; creatively, financially or, ideally, both.

If the star’s fortunes as a studio lead and those of the format had been different over the last few years, one can’t help wondering if the world was robbed of a 3D Cage in Panos Cosmatos’ phantasmagorical cult hit Mandy or his next psychedelic project, Richard Stanley’s Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space. Imagine the dimensional possibilities.

Drive Angry is currently streaming on Showtime, available to rent, and available to purchase on 3D Blu-ray. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is available to rent, with 3D Blu-rays currently out of print.

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