Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Movie Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans ****
Directed By:
Werner Herzog.
Written By: William Finkelstein
Starring: Nicolas Cage (Terence McDonagh), Val Kilmer (Stevie Pruit), Eva Mendes (Frankie Donnenfeld), Xzibit (Big Fate), Brad Dourif (Ned Schoenholtz), Tom Bower (Pat McDonough), Jennifer Coolidge (Genevieve), Fairuza Balk (Heidi), Michael Shannon (Mundt), Shawn Hatosy (Armand Benoit), Shea Whigham (Justin), Denzel Whitaker (Daryl), Irma P. Hall (Binnie Rogers), Vondie Curtis-Hall (James Brasser)

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans is the most demented, delirious black comedy in recent memory. It is the type of film that I think many are going to hate, but that will attract a loyal, cult fan base. I knew that when Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage teamed up, the result would be over the top, but I never expected just how far over the top they would go. This film is some of crazed masterwork in excess.

Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a Lieutenant with the New Orleans police department who gets promoted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, because he risked his life to save a prisoner who was abandoned in his cell when the storm hit. In the process, McDonagh injured his back severely, and now takes Vicodan to dull the pain. And cocaine. And pretty much every other drug he can get his hands on. He is far from choosy. His “girlfriend” is Frankie (Eva Mendes), a prostitute, and at times Terence uses his badge to scare her clients into forking over even more money or drugs. He is also not above pulling over a couple of college kids he thinks are holding, threatening them with arrest, then stealing their drugs, and fucking the pretty girl while her boyfriend watches. Forget moral crisis – that happened months ago. Terence is now just in freefall.

A case lands on his desk. An entire family of African immigrants have been slaughtered in their home. Everyone knows that local drug kingpin Big Fate (Xzibit) is behind the crime – he killed the father because he tried to move in on his turf and the rest of the family because they were there – but there is no evidence to link him to the crime. But Terence has more pressing problems. His gambling debts to his bookie (Brad Dourif) have become so high that he cannot get any more credit, and one of Frankie’s Johns that Terence shook down has mob connections, and they have know come looking for revenge. None of this even mentions that Terence is so far gone on drugs that he has begun to hallucinate. During a stakeout at one point he asks “What the fuck are these iguanas doing on my coffee table?”, and when he is informed there are no iguanas, he hits one in the head just to ensure that it really is there. Later, in the aftermath of a gang style shooting he tells someone to “Shoot him again, his soul is still dancing”, and sure enough, we do see the man soul’s break dancing away even as his boy lies in a pool of blood on the floor.

The movie follows Terence during the course of the investigation into the murder of the immigrant family, but is really more about his freefall than anything else. The movie is said to be a remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 masterwork Bad Lieutenant, which gave Harvey Keitel the best role of his career. That film was a dark drama about a drug addicted cop also in freefall. But other than the most basic of story similarities, the films could not possibly be more different.

What makes the film as great as it is Nicholas Cage’s brilliant, over the top performance. Cage has always been one of the most fearless actors on the planet, and his penchant for going over the top has led to some of his very best, and his very worst, performances. In Bad Lieutenant, Cage dives headlong into his role, and comes up with one of his most memorable performances ever. In nearly every frame of the movie, Cage carries the film on his back with his demented ravings. A highlight is his repeated visits to an old age home, where he yells at an old woman and her personal support worker, trying to get them to reveal information he needs for his investigation. These scenes represent Cage at his manic best. Yet, no matter how far over the top Cage goes, his character remains believable, and even somewhat grounded. Cage may fly into theatrics repeatedly in the performance, but he never goes too far. There is not another actor on the planet that could have played this role as well as Cage does.

Werner Herzog is one of the mad geniuses of the cinema, who for the most part has mainly focuses his energies on documentary films in the last decade. His Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World are two of his most brilliant efforts to date. Until he teamed up with Cage here, he was never able to find an actor with the same insane drive and brilliance as his favorite actor Klaus Kinski. The two collaborated several times, including the masterpieces Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo, and after Kinski’s death, Herzog made the wonderful documentary My Best Fiend about their love/hate relationship. Kinski was the only actor alive who could keep up with Herzog’s insanity (or perhaps, it was the other way around). But in Cage, Herzog has found a similarly fearless partner to make a movie with. Because of this, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans is one of the great achievements in both Herzog and Cage’s careers. This is a great one.

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