Thursday, April 8, 2010

Un-Caged: BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS

The last several years have proven that there is a large market for bad Nicolas Cage thrillers. Remember National Treasure? Ghost Rider? Bangkok Dangerous? National Treasure: Book of Secrets? They all opened at the top of the box office charts on their opening weekend despite being largely terrible. For some reason, the general public will only see Cage if he has odd intensity and likably exaggerated mannerisms tied to a thin character wading through schlock. He’s a great actor though, so it’s a shame that his best projects have a tendency to slip through the cracks. In theory, that shouldn’t have happened to Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which is at once a very good sleazy thriller and a perfectly marketable film. Why, then, has the film seen only a small limited release and is now being limped out on DVD and Blu-ray? Maybe it’s because it happens to be so cheerfully wicked in its insanity.

Helmed by the great German auteur, and suspected crazy person, Werner Herzog, the movie features Cage as a New Orleans cop who injures his back saving a prisoner during Hurricane Katrina. This cop gets addicted to his painkillers and then starts to self-medicate in addition to his prescriptions by lifting some confiscated cocaine from the evidence room. Soon, he’s wandering the ravaged streets of New Orleans, lifting drugs off of unsuspecting addicts and snorting it right in front of them. He tortures and badgers witnesses and suspects, barks out orders, makes backroom deals and bargains, and generally looks at the world through a stare of vague, bug-eyed intensity.  Also, he’s investigating the brutal killings of an entire immigrant family.

Herzog and Cage don’t care much about making this man likable, or even relatable, but they aren’t following him down increasingly depraved paths like Abel Ferrara did with Harvey Keitel in their Bad Lieutenant (1992), a film that’s related to this one in name only. (The Bad Lieutenant part of the title was forced on the picture by a producer with the subtitle Herzog’s idea). Instead, Cage simply presents a man ravaged by circumstance and temperament, mirroring the locale. Herzog’s camera follows his central character through a crumbled and waterlogged city filled with slimy characters and creatures (including hallucinated iguanas and a twitching crocodile corpse), that match the decaying mental state of this bad lieutenant. New Orleans is a place of harsh beauty for Herzog as he uses his usual “voodoo of location” to great effect, not to mention skilful use of his beloved man-versus-wild imagery, not just in the iguanas and crocodiles, but also from the slimy snake the slips through dirty water in the opening scene and the film’s final shot with two men dwarfed by a sinisterly tranquil aquarium.

Often, a Herzog film will become more interesting the more it drifts away from the ostensible point of the scene.  Take, for example, his wonderful Antarctic documentary Encounters at the End of the World in which he places his narration over an interview to explain how lengthy and rambling the interview became. While Port of Call New Orleans remains a luxurious wallow in low genre pleasures and a seriously cracked procedural, there are plenty of excellent moments where the camera drifts away and maybe the plot will follow it. There are plenty of welcome detours, like the aforementioned iguanas that only Cage can see, and there are lots of rich parts for character actors. Jennifer Coolidge unexpectedly turns up playing Cage’s stepmom, but there are plenty of other strange and fascinating moments with a cast of characters that includes a drug dealer (Xzibit), Cage’s coworkers (which include Val Kilmer and Michael Shannon), and a prostitute (Eva Mendes).

This is a film of debauched anecdotes and bizarre incidents, of terrible criminals and sometimes worse officials. It plays like a conventional cop film that happens to be on about as many drugs as are in its main character. Herzog charges the film with his usual intensity of specificity and Cage brings a great performance of the kind that he is capable of delivering, but many recent roles have either misused or reined in. When you have two entertainers as eccentric, engaging and unpredictable as Cage and Herzog, it’s startling, maybe even a little disappointing, to see that, though they create a strange and captivating thriller, it seems to still pull up short. These are two men who could push each other so far over the top that the film would be in free fall. They only get us to the precipice, but what a lovely, beautifully schlocky view.

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