Remember Nicolas Cage? He doesn’t work very often so the name may not immediately ring a bell, but maybe some of his films might jar your memory… Birdy, Raising Arizona, Wild At Heart, Adaptation? (Not to be confused with Nicholas Z. Kage, an “actor” who sleepwalks through roles and films like Fire Birds, Trapped In Paradise, Snake Eyes, Gone In Sixty Seconds, National Treasure, Ghost Rider, Next, Bangkok Dangerous, and many, many more.) He’s an actor who craves odd and interesting characters but manages to shape them into real, fully developed people that sometimes outshine the films they inhabit. Where other actors just present an idiosyncratic caricature he crafts people who are more than simply the sum of their quirks. So as I said earlier, Cage doesn’t make a lot of movies. The good news though is that after a multi-year absence from movie screens he’s finally returned in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Detective Terence McDonagh (Cage) stands in a rapidly flooding New Orleans jail with his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer). Flood waters from Hurricane Katrina are rising and a lone prisoner is trapped in a cell mere moments away from drowning. Pruit votes to leave him for the coroner, but McDonagh is a better cop than that and decides to jump in to save the felon. The leap wrenches his back out and one year later that good cop now has an addiction to pain pills, a prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), and the moral compass of a Water Moccasin. He and Pruit are tasked with finding the killers of an entire family of Senegalese immigrants, and the search leads them to a drug dealer named Big Fate (Xzibit). When not working on the case, McDonagh spends his time harassing night-club patrons for drugs and the occasional quickie as well as interfering with his girlfriend’s business. It’s not long before McDonagh finds himself in trouble with the drug dealers, some low level mobsters, and Internal Affairs. What’s a morally bankrupt cop have to do to survive in a post-Katrina Big Easy anyway?
Bad Lieutenant:PoCNO is Cage’s film from start to finish, and he proves himself more than capable of crafting not only an original and engaging character but one that manages to be both despicable and likable at the same time. Cage’s McDonagh is entirely unpredictable and capable of anything. He finds himself presented with options and choices, and Cage visibly struggles with the decision. It’s not that we ever think he may veer towards the correct choice of course, but Cage’s face shows an awareness of what sits before him and what’s to follow. A scene where he interrogates an old woman and her nurse at a retirement home is priceless for both the humor and intensity, and while I would obviously never wish for an old lady’s oxygen supply to be cut off if it has to happen Cage is the one I want to see standing over her wearing an expression of pure maniacal glee.
The problem is McDonagh is likable purely as a source of entertainment (a script issue as opposed to an acting one). Aside from the very brief introduction we’ve only known him as an immoral prick, so we have no reason to pull for his transition into anything else. He doesn’t grow or change throughout the film as much as he exists on the edge of believability and comedic relief.
Herzog’s past films were often identifiable by the presence of his preferred muse, Klaus Kinski. The blue-eyed, wild-maned actor was erratic and crazy in every role, but with Herzog he would drop even the slightest restraint and just go nuts. I can easily see Cage picking up the mantle of Herzog’s new go-to madman. In fact, if Herzog’s oft-mentioned plans for a remake of Robin Williams’ RV (tentatively titled Fitzcarraldo’s RV) actually get the green-light I fully expect Cage to star as the man trying to move an intact Winnebago up the Amazon on his family vacation.
Cage is joined here by a pretty eclectic supporting cast including the already mentioned Kilmer, Mendes, and Xzibit. Of the three, Mendes comes off the best as she actually has some real meat to her role. Kilmer just pops up occasionally to remind us that he’s in the damn movie. Other recognizable faces include Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge (more serious and dialed-down than she normally is), Shawn Hatosy, and the always wonderful Brad Dourif.
Just as much of a character in the film is director Werner Herzog’s camera. But where Cage makes his character’s actions seem natural, Herzog’s choices stand out from the rest of the film. McDonagh comes upon a traffic accident involving a dead alligator in the road, and Herzog leaves the action to present (almost) a POV shot from a second alligator off in the brush. It watches its dead mate for a minute or so, but while it seems like an ode to a similar scene in Orca the gator never does come back for revenge. (I was hopeful it would show up and bite off Mendes’ leg though…) McDonagh also finds himself enamored with a pair of iguanas at one point that only he can see. Again Herzog pauses the film’s action and narrative to bring the camera down to their level for two long minutes after which we never see them (or anything like it) again.
These two scenes are the only ones like it in the film and they stand out for being so unusual, but that’s not to say there aren’t any other weird bits. The infamous “Shoot him again… his soul’s still dancing” line from the trailer is actually followed by a scene of the dead man break dancing. Cage spends about twenty minutes in the middle of the film speaking in an absurdly nasally voice that sounds like a coked-up version of his character from Peggy Sue Got Married. The problem is these bits of oddness are too few and far between for a two-hour film. Couple that with a dirty cop whose worst offense is accepting sex from a woman he’s harassing and forcing the boyfriend to watch… that’s bad obviously, but it’s not as over-the-top terrible as he should have gone. Instead it’s just one briefly enjoyable crazy punctuation out of a handful spread across a so-so film.
Bad Lieutenant:PoCNO is an interesting film but not really a successful one. That said it’s still worth watching for a few reasons. It’s very funny at times, and even with the reptile POV shots it’s probably Herzog’s most accessible film. He doesn’t seem to be saying much with the movie (in fact the opening shot of a snake swimming lazily in between jail-cell bars as a metaphor for Cage’s character moving between both sides of the law is as deep as the movie gets), but it almost works as pure entertainment. Almost because it isn’t really about very much at all. The case is simply there as a plot marker since details are glossed over and it’s never really a mystery as to what’s going on or who’s responsible. And the film isn’t a true character piece as there’s no true character arc on display.
Laughs and partial craziness aside, the biggest reason to see it is for Cage’s performance. As an actor he’s dug as big of a hole for himself as his character has in this film. Role after role where his talents are either not on display or at the very least hidden beneath hilarious hair-pieces have done major damage to his respectability and likability, but he earns a partial redemption here channeling his endless energy, quirks, and innate zaniness into his most entertaining performance in years. And yes, I do mean intentionally entertaining…
The Upside: Cage’s best performance in years; offbeat and sometimes very funny; unlike any other film you’ll see this year
The Downside: Not nearly as edgy or odd as it needed to be; too long with dry spells between the quirks
On the Side: This is remake in name (and very basic theme) only to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film starring Harvey Keitel. The producers of this new film approached Herzog and insisted he keep the name as they’re hoping to create a franchise of “Bad Lieutenant” films if this one does well enough.