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‘Lord of War’ fits Cage

Nicolas Cage stars as Yuri Orlov, a wily arms dealer in
Nicolas Cage stars as Yuri Orlov, a wily arms dealer in "Lord of War." (Lions Gate Films / The Spokesman-Review)
George M. Thomas Knight Ridder Newspapers

Given Nicolas Cage’s resume, it’s easy to forgive the critically acclaimed and commercially successful actor for taking some time away from his career.

In the past two years, Cage has appeared in two films – count ‘em, two. And the most recent of those was “National Treasure,” one you wouldn’t expect to find listed in the same filmography as “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Bringing Out the Dead.”

His new film, “Lord of War,” is more suited to his unique acting skills. Director-writer Andrew Niccol based the fictional story of international arms dealer Yuri Orlov on assorted shady characters from news accounts during the past couple of decades.

Much like previous roles the 41-year-old Cage has taken on, such as H.I. McDonnough in “Raising Arizona,” Orlov isn’t a one-dimensional individual.

“I’d never seen a character like that before in a script, and I became interested in playing a man whose job was fundamentally unethical – call it what you will, evil, wrong – but, in his manner, an affable, charming man,” Cage says.

“I always thought of the devil being a very nice guy. In order for him to do the work that he needs to do, he wouldn’t come at you with the horns and the tail. He’d come at you with the charm and grace of a very kind person, so that was the paradox of the role that I was attracted to.”

Indeed the role of Orlov requires some nifty feats of derring-do. It blends comedy, drama and political commentary and serves as a scathing indictment of the arms and foreign policies of the United States government. In short, it’s the perfect Cage vehicle.

“I think that I’m more prone to movies that deal with dramatic subject matter in a funny way,” he says. “I’ve always liked funny characters in dramatic situations. I think it’s … part of my own pathos in life, so I don’t really overanalyze or contemplate too much about it. I just let the jazz, if you will, happen, and it pretty much sort of works itself out.”

It works itself out well in “Lord of War” because Cage has the perfect perspective on who Orlov is as a husband, father, loving son – and dealer in death.

“He wasn’t good at anything else, and this is something that he could really do and do well,” he says of his character’s arms dealing. “That was more a motivating factor than even the money he was making.

“Here’s something that whatever it might be, as bloody as it might be, he’s the best at it. Well, anyone who’s the best in any field is fascinating to watch.”

Mention that Orlov is just another in a long line of quirky characters that Cage has played, and he laughs at the thought.

“Yeah, I first started hearing quirky in ‘82,” he says. “But that’s OK. It’s actually better than being conventional.”

He brought a sense of freshness to last year’s role as Benjamin Franklin Gates in “National Treasure,” a part his fans might consider rather conventional. He doesn’t see it that way.

“I think that it’s nice to do the Ben Gates character because it’s a nice reminder that I still function in a normal society,” Cage says. “That’s cool. There’s a tension to it as well. Although I think that Ben Gates had his little – and I’ll use the word – quirks as well, because he was really into history and was considered a kind of family nut because the whole family was looking for treasure that everyone else thought didn’t exist.

“I’m interested in exploring human behavior as an actor,” he continues. “Consequently the behavior I find most interesting is the one that’s most exotic.

“Having said that, I’m currently interested in trying to find what is interesting about the mundane. … I think that if you put anything under the right lens at the right magnification, you’re going to find something interesting to look at.”

He must have found something interesting in Gates because there are talks of a sequel to “Treasure.” In the meantime, he’s got a full slate of movies he’s acting in and producing.

Cage is already being pegged as a possible Oscar nominee for “The Weather Man,” which opens Oct. 28. He plays a top-rated weatherman in the Chicago TV market who’s struggling through a divorce and other personal problems even as he’s being courted by a national network morning show.

“It’s about what’s going on behind the public smile,” Cage says.

“I was going through a divorce (from Lisa Marie Presley) and was feeling adrift and vulnerable,” he adds. “I heard about the movie, and I thought it might be a way for me to work through those feelings, and as corny as it might sound, it helped.”

He has just finished “Ghost Rider,” based on the unabashed comic book fan’s favorite characters, and is completing work on “The Wicker Man,” a remake of the cult film about pagan rituals.

He’s also set for a drama directed by Oliver Stone, in which he will play a cop trapped in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Cage didn’t hesitate in attaching his name to the project.

“No, I would say so if I thought that the script was in any way cashing in or exploitative,” he says emphatically. “Then I would have turned away from it.

“But when I read it, it was such a positive human story that I thought it needed to be told because it had the right spirit and mind.”

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