Nicolas Cage is a really weird guy. Regardless of what you may believe, the prolific actor can deliver the goods when he wants to, though more often than not, he’s either phoning his performance in from across the galaxy or chewing wildly at the scenery. When Cage is in top form, he’s remarkable. On the other hand, when he’s just there to collect a hefty paycheck, you want to reach through the screen and pull out his tongue. Figuratively speaking, of course. It’s often hard to believe that the man who starred in Joel and Ethan Coen’s immortal classic “Raising Arizona” is the same filthy rapscallion who shamelessly tortured me with “Ghost Rider”.
Director Werner Herzog’s pitch black cop comedy “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans” effectively inserts Nicolas Cage back into the center of my cool book. The film is a fascinating descent into the shattered psyche of corrupt New Orleans cop Terence McDonagh, a wholly unlikable individual who stumbles and bumbles his way into a position of power within the local police force. Never mind that he’s a womanizing drug addict who constantly abuses his title by stealing drugs from club kids and violently harassing old ladies — when it comes to getting the job done, Terence somehow manages to put everything in its proper place. His methods, of course, are less than ethical.
The film opens with McDonagh and his dodgy partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) cruelly tormenting a helpless prisoner as his cell gradually fills with water during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly overcome with a sense of duty, McDonagh leaps into the water to rescue the poor bastard from certain doom, a decision which leaves the decorated officer with a bad back and an unhealthy addiction to an array of legal and illegal narcotics. When he’s not shaking down his hooker girlfriend’s wealthy customers or racking up a serious debt to his favorite bookie, he’s attempting to solve the murder of five Senegalese immigrants who were selling drugs on the wrong turf.
It takes roughly half-an-hour for “The Bad Lieutenant” to find its groove. However, once you realize that the picture is more of a deep, dark comedy than a by-the-numbers tale of a crooked cop and his rabble of victims, you begin to see the brilliance behind the movie’s brutally twisted aesthetic. Instead of letting the audience see the world through McDonagh’s drug-addled eyes, we get brief, bite-sized glimpses into depth of his madness, which makes for some genuinely hilarious scenes. Watching Terence stare at imaginary iguanas during an important stakeout is one of the picture’s most surreal and oddly poetic moments, second only to the break-dancing incarnation of a dead criminal’s soul located towards the end of the picture. It may sound peculiar, but it’s a truly fascinating sight.
Despite a few lapses towards the tail end of the picture, Cage wisely keeps his performances from launching high into the cinematic stratosphere. His portrayal of McDonagh is a volatile mixture of heartache and absurdity, a concoction which suits the actor’s style to perfection. The supporting case, which includes Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Xzibit, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Fairuza Balk, and the always engaging Jennifer Coolidge, do a fine job of quietly balancing Cage’s penchant for wild gestures and wide-eyed tomfoolery. Although his performance teeters on the edge of high camp, Cage is easily the film’s centerpiece.
One must possess a very high tolerance for Nicolas Cage to find any sort of enjoyment in “The Bad Lieutenant”. Herzog and Cage have crafted a dizzying and often hilarious alternative to your standard Hollywood detective picture, a film that is likely to alienate most of its potential audience. The story is gritty, its characters nasty and mean-spirited, elements that tend to rub mainstream movie-goers the wrong way. However, approached as a terminally deranged comedy that isn’t afraid to tackle loads of taboo subjects and situations, “The Bad Lieutenant” is satisfying in ways few movies are. And whatever you, don’t think of the picture as another pointless remake — think of it as an improvement over the original. A huge improvement.
Werner Herzog (director) / William M. Finkelstein (screenplay)
CAST: Nicolas Cage … Terence McDonagh
Eva Mendes … Frankie Donnenfeld
Val Kilmer … Stevie Pruit
Fairuza Balk … Heidi
Xzibit … Big Fate (as Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner)
Shawn Hatosy … Armand Benoit
Jennifer Coolidge … Genevieve
Tom Bower … Pat McDonough
Vondie Curtis-Hall … James Brasser
Brad Dourif … Ned Schoenholtz