Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

There are times I really do enjoy watching Nicolas Cage get unhinged on screen. Yes, there are times his over-the-top acting is grossly inappropriate. Other times (cough, The Wicker Man, cough) it's delightfully inappropriate. Then there are times Cage's nutty acting is delightfully appropriate. Don't believe me? Well, watch these series of ads Cage did for a Japanese slot machine:

If you're not won over, then I have no use for you.

Japanese slot machines aside, Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a movie in which Cage gets delightfully, wonderfully unhinged, and the movie gets delightfully, wonderfully unhinged along with him. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, this may be one of the best - and most appropriate - performances Cage has given in well over a decade. He and Herzog make a very good manic team.

For those of you that don't know this by now, no, this is not a remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel. Herzog has admitted he hasn't even seen Ferrara's movie. The films share one thing and one thing only in common: that their protagonists are corrupt police lieutenants addicted to drugs. And that's it. What happened was both films share the same producer (Edward R. Pressman), who insisted Herzog slap the Bad Lieutenant moniker on his film.

In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop who saves a prison inmate from drowning in the wake of Hurrican Katrina (the holding cell's being flooded). The good news is that his bravery and heroism has earned him a promotion to lieutenant. The bad news is said heroism has also earned him permanent back pains, which triggers an addiction to painkillers. Then coke. Then...well, whatever he can score from the evidence room and his escort girlfriend (Eva Mendes).

The main plot is painfully standard: something about Lt. Terence McDonagh (Cage) investigating a multiple homicide with a drug kingpin (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner) as the prime suspect. But if I'm hazy about the details of the plot, I think it's because the movie isn't interested in the plot.

This is what happens when you have a police procedural directed by and starring slightly unhinged people who have no interest in police procedurals make a police procedural. Ironically, by dismissing the tropes typically found in the cop drama, Herzog and Cage have breathed new life into this moribund genre.

Herzog and Cage seem more interested in portraying someone go off the rails in a way we haven't seen portrayed in movies. Sporting a Richard III-esque hump to indicate his constant back problems that lead to his drug addictions, Cage's titular bad lieutenant behaves naughtily and erratically, flipping out at dismissive pharmacists, slapping imaginary (well, actually, real) iguanas, smacking around old ladies (after, of course, hiding behind her door whilst shaving) and watching dead men's souls breakdance.

Okay, I should probably back up. What's going on with the iguanas hanging out on the coffee table that only Cage can see? And, for that matter, what's going on with the shot following an alligator wandering along the freeway? And now that I think of it, doesn't the film open with the camera following a snake slithering through flood waters? Okay, I get it: we're watching a nature study on the reptiles that wandered freely around New Orleans after the levees broke. Oh, Herzog, you!

I should also mention some of the fine supporting acting going on in this movie, including Val Kilmer as Cage's low-key partner, Mendes as Cage's sympathetic girlfriend (they're both junkies and hey, misery loves company), Brad Dourif as an oddly reasonable bookie, Tom Bower as Cage's recovering alcoholic father, Jennifer Coolidge as Bower's nutty non-recovering alcoholic girlfriend and Xzibit as Big Fate.

Although I won't reveal the ending here, it does clue everyone in who hasn't yet caught on that Herzog is indeed messing with us, and has zero interest in the main cop drama. In fact, the ending reveals that Herzog hasn't been interested in making a drama, but a very manic and oddball comedy about someone becoming an unhinged reptilian beast.

Wondering if fish dream,

James "Japanophile" Comtois

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