Even Nicolas Cage’s most devoted fans will surely admit that he’s made some truly dire films over the past decade. The Wicker Man twisted a genuine classic movie into one of the worst Hollywood remakes imaginable. Then came a wave of forgettable thriller landfill like Next, Knowing and Bangkok Dangerous.
It’s easy to forget, in the midst of all these odd and apparently arbitrary career choices, just how good Cage can be. His broad, eccentric turn in Kick-Ass showed glimmers of his erstwhile talent, but the brilliance of his performances in movies such as Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation or Lord Of War seem like distant memories.
Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, however, proves that, with the right script and the right director, Cage still has the ability to do great things.
Only a director as fiercely individual and eccentric as Werner Herzog would consider making their own take (for Port Of Call is neither a remake nor a sequel) of Abel Ferrara’s uncompromising and controversial 90s original.
New Orleansis quite easily Herzog’s most mainstream film to date. That said, this isn’t really saying much, since the German director has, since the early 60s, been making unique, captivating and downright odd films, most obviously Fitzcarraldo, in which Klaus Kinski and dozens of extras dragged a steamship up the side of a mountain.
Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, like Ferrara’s movie, is a prolonged stare into a pit of moral decay. Set among the ruined city of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Cage is perfect as the loathsome, hunchbacked lieutenant Terence McDonagh, an embittered, drug-addled lawman who attempts to find the killer of an Senegalese family while juggling his relationship with high class hooker Frankie (Eva Mendez), his increasingly unmanageable debt to Ned (Brad Dourif) and his potentially dangerous dealings with drug kingpin Big Fate (Xzibit).
Where Ferrara’s film was a peculiarly Catholic fable about sin and redemption, Herzog’s treatment of Bad Lieutenant is unabashedly secular. Cage’s McDonagh is a manifestation of the decay all around him. Hunched and in pain (his worsening drug addiction only came about as a result of his back injury), his attempts to help himself and those around him only appear to make matters worse.
It’s worth noting, too, that McDonagh isn’t even the most corrupt character in the film. That accolade goes to the murderously amoral Steve Pruit (Val Kilmer, in his best role in years). That’s not to say that McDonagh doesn’t do very, very, bad things, however. These include the constant theft of drugs from his own rundown police precinct, and the decidedly unpleasant torture of a helpless old woman in a rest home.
But within the hallucinatory context of the film, the lieutenant’s crime has its own kind of sick logic. And just as his life appears to be spiralling irretrievably out of control, with half of New Orleans’ criminal underworld gunning for him and his murder witness disappearing abroad, McDonagh experiences a darkly comic redemption of his own.
Bad Lieutenant‘s plot is slight, but its performances, with Cage carrying the film with a performance that is both absurd and remarkable, along with Herzog’s hallucinatory, sardonic direction, make it a unique, unmissable film.
Herzog appears to have found the perfect match in Cage, with the former pushing the latter into the kind of edgy territory he excels at. A one-of-a-kind noir thriller filled with drugs, bizarre visions of lizards and jarring tonal shifts, Bad Lieutenant lacks some of the brutal power of Ferrara’s 1992 vision, but it’s nevertheless a bravura departure for Herzog, and a remarkable return to form for one of Hollywood’s most unpredictable actors.
“What are these fucking iguanas doing on my coffee table?” Cage, it’s good to see you back at the top of your game.
Herzog’s location photography of a devastated New Orleans comes beautifully to life on Blu-ray, and there really is no better way to admire the extraordinary colours and textures of a lizard’s skin than in high definition.
A half-hour ‘making-of’ documentary is far more interesting than you’d usually expect, thanks in part to the further insight into the terrible state of New Orleans, but also because of Herzog’s presence, who makes for a fascinating and intelligent commentator on his own work and decisions.
There’s also a trailer and photo gallery courtesy of the director’s wife, Lena Herzog, which provide a further document of the film’s location shoot.
Perhaps the most glaring omission is a director’s commentary, and a feature-length monologue from Herzog, perhaps discussing the finer points of iguanas and lucky crack pipes, would have made for a potentially fascinating listen.
Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.