There are three schools of thought when it comes to Nicolas Cage’s career. Some believe he is a once-talented actor who now picks projects based on the number of 0’s that come with the pay check. Others (myself included) maintain hope that he selects films in which he has the opportunity to make unique decisions and create a memorable character (even if the film itself is painfully unmemorable). Then there is the third school, who supposes that Cage was abducted by aliens soon after his performance in Adaptation and replaced by an imitation-bot with a penchant for poorly scripted action-thrillers. Hey, every theory sounds crazy until it’s proven, right?
It’s a tough job defending Nicolas Cage’s career choices, but someone has to do it, and I’m proud to carry that lofty burden. Sure, there are bad films littered throughout his filmography (I’ve made it my business to fill my daily conversation with quotes from The Wicker Man – all in loving affection, of course). However, not only do I believe that Cage is just as good as he’s always been, but in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, he gives one of the best performances of his impressive career. Perhaps it took a director as crazy as Werner Herzog to control (and ultimately unleash) the madness that exists within Cage. Together, they craft a character not unlike a modern day Daniel Plainview; a perfect storm of unrestrained cinematic grandiosity and insanity.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a remake/sequel/spin-off of Abel Ferrara’s controversial cult classic Bad Lieutenant, but not really. Both films certainly feature bad lieutenants. Ferrara’s protagonist (played by a fearless Harvey Keitel) was an aggressive Irish-Catholic undone by his gambling and drug addictions, only to be redeemed by a last-minute act of unexpected forgiveness. The picture was bleak, uncompromising, and interrupted by frequent intervals featuring a weeping, nude Keitel. Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant is not quite as confronting, nor does it reach the lofty heights of the original’s dissection of what it meant to be “bad”. But good grief is it fun.
Cage stars as Terrence McDonagh, a recently promoted New Orleans police lieutenant with a severe back problem, numerous undiscriminating drug addictions, a hooker for a girlfriend (Eva Mendes), a gambling problem and an affinity for sexual bribes. His first case as lieutenant is to find those responsible for an execution-style murder of a Senegalese family. The prime suspect is drug dealer Big Fete (Xzibit), and McDonagh goes on the hunt for …. wait a second! This is starting to sound an awful lot like a generic police procedural! In what kind of backwards world can Werner Herzog – a director who once threatened to kill actor and freuqnet collaborator Klaus Kinski, and even went as far as to eat his own shoe after losing a bet to documentarian Errol Morris – in what world can he make a by-the-numbers crime drama?
The good news is that Herzog has not made a by-the-numbers crime drama, although screenwriter William Finkelstein (L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, Murder One) may have intended differently. The fact is, Herzog couldn’t make a conventional film if his life depended on it, and there are plenty of outrageous moments (both comical and jaw-dropping) to affirm this. With an actor as committed as Cage in the role of McDonagh, the film often feels more like a circus sideshow than a typical procedural. See Nicolas Cage threaten two elderly ladies at once! See Nicolas Cage have sex with a woman and force her boyfriend to watch them at gunpoint! See Nicolas Cage hallucinate and imagine iguanas EVERYWHERE! Toto, I don’t think we’re watching Law and Order anymore.
As you would imagine, the life of a bad lieutenant is about as stable as nitroglycerin. McDonagh’s drug and gambling problems escalate, interfering significantly with his murder investigation. When it becomes apparent that his career could be at risk, McDonagh abandons his (few) morals and enlists Big Fete’s help, like a cut snake stopping at nothing to survive. Ultimately, this becomes the film’s closest link to Ferrara’s (admittedly superior) film. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans also attempts to examine what it means to be “bad”, but without making any meaningful statement. McDonagh’s ultimate redemption exists only in his mind, evidenced by a final coda that may or may not be a crack-infused fantasy. You almost want Herzog to do what he normally does, and explain his reasoning so that there be no question in the viewer’s mind what his intention is. At times, I craved hearing his eloquent narration over the top of the film’s final sequences. In the end, all we are left with is a better (and stranger) than average police procedural with glimpses of brilliance. Better (and stranger) than average, with glimpses of brilliance? Sounds like Cage’s career so far.