When will Nicolas Cage make another good movie? Knowing, his latest paycheck in the form of a movie he should never have considered doing, debuted yesterday to an $8.8 million opening-day gross and will almost certainly be number one this weekend. As always, that amounts to a kind of lowly vindication of the Cage strategy. He makes films that people want to see, and in today’s Hollywood, there aren’t too many forms of cred that can trump that. For a lot of people, though, Cage has become something of a joke, a proud I don’t give a f—! hack-for-hire who sells out his gifts with such unabashed promiscuity that it’s almost as if he were daring you to call him on it. Once in a while, of course, Cage comes back into the fold. He tried most recently with World Trade Center, which came out three years ago, although his last truly stellar role was probably that of the discombobulated screenwriter in Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman-scripted brain-teaser released in 2002. Ever since then, in far too many grade-Z genre schlockers (Bangkok Dangerous, Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man), Cage is like an actor who might have been Marlon Brando and decided instead to go the route of Wesley Snipes.

Does he do it for the money? Perhaps, but that may be too facile an explanation. It’s worth recalling that Cage, even in the ’80s, those days when he dared to act without a net, was one of the first actors of his generation to pump up his physique. He has always wanted to be a high-flying thespian and a sex-god movie star. I’ll never forget what a jolt it was when he came up to accept the Oscar for his fearless and sublime performance in Leaving Las Vegas (1996). It was obvious that he had re-honed his image for the moment — his facial contours newly sculpted and pristine, his hair looking more luxurious than it had in years. This was the official crowning moment of his career as a screen artist, but it was also the launch of Nicolas Cage 2.0: the brawny action-movie leading man who would follow Leaving Las Vegas by making The Rock and Con Air (in all fairness, he probably needed a break from psychodrama), grabbing success as Hollywood then defined it: as the holy right to kick righteous ass on screen.

Ever since, Cage’s big bad expensive movies have been there, in a strange way, to feed his ego. Their very existence says: look at how much the powers that be will pay for me! It also says, within a culture of glorified frat-house values: I’m prized not only when I do that fancy, prestige girly-man acting stuff but simply when I show up with my knitted eyebrows and my brooding pout, when I do my whole James Dean-gone-to-the-dark-side thing, when I’m Nicolas Cage, unvarnished by acting.

In his cheesy paycheck films, Cage always seems to be cast as some sort of boozing, disheveled film-noir lost soul, and the roles have added up over time into a kind of unconscious confessional symbolism.It’s as if Cage were saying that he’s aware of the toll his sell-out is taking on him. But speaking of confession, maybe he’s about to comeback to the fold again: One of his upcoming films is a remake of Abel Ferrara’s wrenchingly depraved, soul-on-the-hot-grill Bad Lieutenant (1992),which Werner Herzog is directing. With any luck, it will mark a return to the kind of high-wire acting that Cage has always done best. I’ve always wondered why he can’t do both at once: make those slovenly genre films that critics thumb their noses at but that rule the box office for a weekend, then turn around and do stunning independent work with a bold director who is breaking new ground. Maybe Bad Lieutenant will be that film. But either way, Cage is far too great an actor to ever leave us asking: When will Nicolas Cage make another good movie?