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Cage's star power saves 'Next'

With Nicolas Cage the question is usually why? Why ‘‘National Treasure’’? Why ‘‘The Wicker Man’’? Why, why, why ‘‘Ghost Rider’’? I ask a question like that, furrowing my brow and groaning my way through his movies. Then at some point, the same thing occurs to me that probably does to the tens of millions of people who help keep Nicolas Cage up to his gleaming teeth in leather jackets: The man is a movie star.

Aren’t a lot of people in movies movie stars, you ask? Probably. But unlike too many of Cage’s peers, he actually seems to enjoy being one. He might like being a star so much that he doesn’t care what he does as long as he’s doing something. ‘‘What difference does it make? They’ll still come,’’ you can imagine him saying as he fixes his hair in the morning (and if that gets any longer, darker, or fuller, we’ll have to start calling it a mane). Seriously: He just made a hit out of a movie about a stunt man with a burning skull for a head.

Now he’s back with a watchably absurd popcorn flick about a man who can see two minutes into the future. Incidentally, the man wears a tan suede jacket and the movie, generically enough, is called ‘‘Next,’’ which, at Cage’s rate of production, could be the name of all his upcoming movies.

‘‘Next’’ has been adapted from the 1954 Philip K. Dick story ‘‘The Golden Man,’’ to which the movie bears almost no resemblance. Cage plays Cris Johnson, a low-rent Las Vegas magician. Right away Cage hooks us. He wears a velvet tux with a ruffled seafoam-green shirt and does his magic tricks with a stoner’s deadpan. He’s not taking this seriously: There’s barely anyone in the audience, he’s playing to us. There’s something about gambling towns that just suits Cage’s blend of arrogance and self-deprecation — ‘‘Next’’ is at least his third Vegas movie. But this one doesn’t stay there long.

Cris finds himself hounded by the FBI, represented here by an enjoyably curt Julianne Moore. The feds have learned of Cage’s gift and want to use it to save Los Angeles from being taken out by a nuclear bomb. But he fears exploitation and takes off to Arizona, setting off a wild chase that does produce one silly yet exciting sequence (the director is Lee Tamahori) in which trucks and boulders and logs go tumbling down a hill.

For fabric-softening, the film’s three screenwriters give Cris visions of a woman. Her name is Liz, and she’s played by Jessica Biel, the movies’ current must-have item. Alongside Cage’s spontaneity, Biel seems humorless and earnestly dull, the same way Eva Mendes did in ‘‘Ghost Rider.’’ It makes you wonder whether Cage is avoiding the Drew Barrymores of the world as a matter of vanity: Does he fear being upstaged? Not that Barrymore would want Biel’s part: She’s bait for the movie’s nuke-obsessed Eurobaddies. (The must-have items of 1988 are back.)

The filmmakers have their fun playing with Cris’s premonitory powers. One foot chase in a casino is sublimely choreographed, with Cris knowing precisely when to bend over or turn a corner so the security guys on his trail keep missing him by a nanosecond. Meanwhile, his visions look like regular scenes until they stop and start again in the movie’s reality. Of course, this happens so often that you’re never entirely sure when you’re watching real action or Cris’s prediction of what’s to come.

This is fun for us, too — until it turns crass. (We have to watch someone get blown up at least twice.) The movie’s attempts to psych us out are actually desperate, not least because the filmmakers and the effects department want to detonate stuff and have it not mean anything. When you’re being toyed with that cheaply, you forget how much you admire Nicolas Cage’s shamelessness and start to resent the movie’s.

Wesley Morris can be reached at For more on movies, go to