Welcome back Nicolas Cage, where ya been? Huh? What's that? You've been working steadily in Hollywood for the last two decades? You're kidding? No...I'm serious. The Nicolas Cage I remember was the firebrand thespian who took risks and kicked ass, applying his unusual gifts to such memorable movies as Raising Arizona, Peggy Sue Got Married, Vampire's Kiss, Wild at Heart, and Leaving Las Vegas (you earned an Oscar for that last one, right?). The one you're talking about watered down his demeanor to earn hefty hackwork paychecks in bilge like Ghost Rider, National Treasure (Parts One and Two), Gone in Sixty Seconds, Next, and the upcoming Sorcerer's Apprentice. The Nic I love is on display in Werner Herzog's brilliant, baffling The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans - and it's this arch, over the top and risk-taking Nic that I prefer to spend my time with.
Terence McDonagh (Cage) is a drug-taking, smack talking jackass who views the entire Parish police department as his own personal den of iniquity. He beds a prostitute (played by Eva Mendes) while he avoids the prying eyes of fellow detective Pruit (Val Kilmer) and evidence room supervisor Mundt (Michael Shannon). When an immigrant family is killed, execution style, McDonagh makes it his goal to discover the perpetrators. Turns out a local gangster named Big Fate (Xzibit) had a hand in the heinous crime. Using his street contacts, as well as his own fevered brain, McDonagh tries to entrap his felonious prey, all while taking advantage of the vices available in the Crescent City.
Let's get one thing straight, right up front. This is not a remake. That mighty maverick Herzog has said that producers forced him to use the Bad Lieutenant name, hoping the connection would equal a little curiosity cash. It was never his intention to copy or compete with Abel Ferrara's intense urban mediation on faith, duty, and morality. Instead, Herzog hoped that his standard subtext about man vs. nature (and by consequence, man vs. his own nature) would carry the day - and he was right, thank god. In the tame and treading water medium of film, an artform growing more artificial than Heidi Montag's fame (and physiological façade), it's nice to see someone following their own unique muse, and in turn, making the most of it. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (BLPOFNO from now on) takes the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, welds it to a standard crime story whodunit, and then slowly deconstructs both the genre and the people populating it. We aren't supposed to gain greater insight into the city or its struggling citizenry. Instead, Cage's character is meant to thwart all that is good, wholesome, decent, and hardworking about a major metropolis post-disaster, and then add another level or quirky histrionics to drive the decision home.
Cage is indeed magnificent here, far better that any of the five Academy-nominated actors this year. Because he is so odd, so weird and off-putting in his approach and interpretation, many thought he was simply having us on, having a laugh at the sake of a seasoned filmmaker. But Herzog is in on the ruse, and together they deliver nuclear cinematic fission. From his mere physicality (because of a lingering spinal issue, Lt. McDonagh walks like a half-assed hunchback) to the on-again, off-again Louisiana accent, Cage tests our attention span and our need for continuity. One moment, he's so serious that he sizzles. The next, he's wacked out on recreational pharmaceuticals and seeing errant hallucinogenic iguanas. One scene in particular, involving a pair of old ladies in a nursing home, a strung out McDonagh, and an interrogation has got to go down as one of the greatest moments of cruelty and crudeness ever put on film. It's one of those wonderful water cooler moments that will have you hitting the rewind button - and bragging to your less enlightened friends - for several months to come.
But more than mere grandstanding, BLPOCNO takes the truth and filters it in a way that makes us see everything in a whole new, far more expressive way. Sure, we can laugh as Cage curses out a couple, or snorts coke, but these are parts of a portrait far more fiery and provoking. What we are supposed to see is something far more chilling, an illustration of how deadening, and defeating, a pursuit of justice can be. McDonagh is not bad because he's wicked. He's awful because people are awful. Because criminals will do anything to avoid capture and culpability. Because everyone is on the take, they just don't realize it. In Herzog's universe, human beings are pawns as part of some comical cosmic game where no one knows the rules and few can follow the various moves. With performances that actually complement Cage - including decent work from Eva Mendes, Kilmer, and Xzibit - and a look that suggests something captured off the cuff and 'as it happens', BLPOCNO earns the right to its own individual reputation. While it's not Harvey Keitel masturbating and running around nude, it is just as outrageous - and excellent.
Playing with the camera and the kind of footage used, Herzog (in collaboration with cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger) produces a unique looking film, part homage to Hollywood's past (especially in Big Fate's fancy home), part gritty post-modern noir. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image fluctuates between bright and slightly soft, clearly digital and old school analog. The details are astonishing, and Herzog's framing and compositions are stunning. Overall, the movie's look is as complex and compelling as the story and performances on display.
While there's really not much to the soundtrack (Herzog tends toward minimal musical intrusions and lots of natural ambience), the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is excellent. Voices are upfront and easy to understand, the ancillary elements employed bringing a vitality and nerve to the narrative that silence simply can't provide.
Okay - here's the bad news. Herzog does not provide a commentary track on the DVD version of the film (supposedly, the Blu-ray also fails to offer such an alternate narrative), and that's a dirty rotten shame. You could listen to this man read his laundry list and it would be fascinating, frustrating, and a heck of a lot of fun. That would be especially true with BLPOCNO. Instead, we get an EPK level making-of (lots of actors praising each other and the film), a digital photography book (huh?), a standard trailer, and an alternative trailer. Not the most impressive list of bonus features, that's for sure, and easily much less than this amazing movie deserves.
In a year filled with audacity (Antichrist, Inglourious Basterds), nothing is cheekier and as out and out ballsy as The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans. This is creativity as confrontation, expectations challenged and then shattered by one of the last true artists left in the field of filmmaking. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it remains one of 2009's overlooked gems. It also argues for a Nicolas Cage that, outside all the TMZ scandal and bad financial decisions, is truly one of the best actors of his generation. Too bad then that the bottom line will have him scraping the dregs out of the seams of the mucky mainstream barrel for the foreseeable. To quote one of his best performances, "I (preminisce), no return of the salad days." A film like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans indicates what we have, as well as what we've lost, in the process.
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