Nic Cage is the Meryl Streep of bats–t-crazy characters

If you want to get at the essence of Nicolas Cage, you’ll find it in his new, bananas revenge thriller, “Mandy.” His whole career may well have been leading up to this moment.

Recently, I rewatched 1987’s “Moonstruck,” in which a fledgling Cage turns the volume all the way up in one scene: “I lost my hand! I lost my bride!” his volatile baker character bellows at Cher.

Cage’s new movie definitively answers the question: What if he took that moment and turned it into an entire performance, if not a decades-spanning career?

“Mandy,” out Friday, is a deliberate B-movie and, I hope, an instant cult classic. It’s an ’80s-set, blood-red hellscape shot with psychedelic visuals, pounding guitar-fuzz soundtrack, “Stranger Things”-esque synthesizers and maniacal laughter alternating with go-for-broke screaming — most of it Cage’s. His co-star, the titular Mandy, is played by the peerless British actress Andrea Riseborough as a metalhead artist who’s kidnapped. There’s a Charles Manson-esque cult, a jar of hallucinogenic sludge, porcupine-spiked biker-mutants, a chainsaw duel and more than one decapitated head.

Are you not entertained?

Thus the paradox of the Cage. Nobody does balls to the wall, bats–t crazy like this guy. His meltdowns are a sight to behold. They are endlessly meme-able, perhaps none more so than his “Not the bees!” scene from 2006’s “The Wicker Man.” Sure, he’s capable of subtlety, but even in his quiet moments you feel yourself waiting for the moment when he opens the Cage. Nobody opens the cage like Cage.

For his efforts, he’s been critically written off as the Stephen King of actors — disdained for being trashy while consistently turning in highly entertaining work, whether in quality films (“Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Raising Arizona,” “Vampire’s Kiss,” “Wild at Heart,” “Red Rock West,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Adaptation,” “Matchstick Men,” “Kick-Ass”) or less challenging summer fare (“Honeymoon in Vegas,” “The Rock,” “Con Air,” “Face/Off,” “National Treasure,” “Ghost Rider,” “Drive Angry”). Say what you will, that’s quite a body of work for a guy who got his start as “Brad’s bud” in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (blink and you’ll miss him as a fry cook), though being Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew probably didn’t hurt.

Sure, there’s a certain “he’s just being himself” quality to the roles, as some TMZ’d public tantrums and a few harrowing police reports may attest. “In an outburst outside of the nightclub, Cage was taped screaming: ‘I thought we were brothers, man,’ and ‘I’ll die in the name of honor!’” ABC News reported about a 2011 incident in New Orleans. Yeah, sounds about right.

Since when has any of this hurt an actor’s reputation? The much-lauded Jack Nicholson never demonstrated a particularly impressive range, and was known for being a voracious womanizer in his prime. Marlon Brando was always Marlon Brando, on-screen and off. But because Cage’s actorly setting of choice is full-on bonkers, he doesn’t get the same accolades, even though he’s raised it to a delightful art form.

He at least seems to have a certain self-awareness about his strengths, gamely appearing on “Saturday Night Live” several years back alongside Andy Samberg’s impression of him. Lately, he seems to be embracing his gonzo leanings: In last year’s “Mom and Dad,” he smashed up a pool table while shouting the lyrics to “The Hokey Pokey.”

This is what we want — nay, what we need — from the Cage. He’s set to star in an upcoming title called “A Score to Settle,” so here’s hoping!

Cage against the machine

The actor has had his highs and lows in a career that began with a bit part in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

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