I almost feel bad for having down-talked Nicolas Cage throughout recent years. But then I remember that Will Smith has also made a career from big-budget spectacles without tarnishing his own name, and that sympathy is forgotten. If Cage wasn’t such a talented actor, I wouldn’t ever concern myself with such pointless thought; watching films such as Leaving Las Vegas and Wild at Heart, though, adds an extra layer of misfortune to the dreck of National Treasure, or the visual repulsion of Ghost Rider. For a film lover, there’s little worse than seeing a solid actor slum it to the point of undermining everything that he or she has done before. There’s a certain sadness to this; revisiting the better work of yesteryears is forever tainted. It’s never easy trying to separate modern-day disasters from a performer’s past efforts, and Cage’s filmography is one of the toughest to appreciate on its own high-mark merits. Remember, this is the guy who donned a bearsuit and sucker-punched a bunch of crazed women in arguably the worst horror remake ever, 2006’s The Wicker Man.
That Cage’s performance in Werner Herzog‘s new bonkers crime dramedy Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is fantastic feels like a weight lifted off the shoulders of those who share this opinion. A Jay-Z/Timbaland-like reminder that the man hasn’t lost his abilities; they’ve just been lying dormant, locked away on the outskirts of producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s money-pile. Skills that are now the equal to the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t holiday groundhog; 2010 will see Cage starring in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a Bruckheimer-backed cash-cow that looks quite perfunctory. By the time that one hits screens, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans will likely be a distant memory. Unfairly so. Herzog has conjured the best Nicolas Cage performance since 2003’s Matchstick Men, as the druggie, corrupt lawman ‘Terrence McDonagh,’ he’s turned in a safety-off rampage that’s just damn entertaining. Not necessarily a look-at-me-Academy job; just a free-wheeling, fascinating job. He’s always on screen, yet he keeps attention in check.
It’s a shame that Cage recently saw his riches go down the tube, thanks to misguided spending (dinosaur skulls) and a reportedly sheisty business manager; now he’ll have to do more blockbuster tomfoolery, when he should be making more intimate showcases the likes of Bad Lieutenant. Continued after the jump:
Lurching around with a bad back (the result of a swan-dive onto a lower floor of a flooded, post-Hurricane Katrina prison), Cage’s ‘McDonagh’ moves like a taller, lankier, more attractive Quasimodo. He’s investigating a multiple homicide that went down in the slums of N.O.; a couple of kids are dead, and the local crime kingpin (played by Xzibit, in a solid bit of cooler-than-cool scenery-chewing) is suspect number one. The new assignment, compounded with an excessive amount of drugs, takes its toll on Cage; his mental condition gets progressively worse as the film proceeds, with his cocaine intake spiraling off into heroine and other narcotics of little choice. The drug intakes quickly enhances his agitation, which, in turn, helps the film’s fun quotient consistently increase. It’s curious when the sight of a cocaine-riddled lawman pointing a pistol at the head of an elderly woman while cutting off the air supply of a second, wheelchair-bound old lady becomes comedic gold, but that’s the charm of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Herzog, a reliable director of provocative cinema, seems to have had a great time shooting the picture; watch how he lavishes in acid-trippy close-ups of two iguanas for an inexplicably long stretch of time. The iguanas (both products of McDonagh’s imagination, metaphors for his slide into utter depravity) are ogled by Herzog’s camera as if they’re two chesty blondes and he’s Hugh Hefner; as the scene continues on, it’s easy to wonder if you’ve dabbled in the same illegal substances that Lieutenant McDonagh has.
As a fan of Abel Ferrara’s towering Bad Lieutenant (1992), this not-a-remake irked me at first; accepting that some filmmaker is mooching off the good name of an independent classic never goes down smooth. On each of their surfaces, Ferrara’s and Herzog’s films are certainly related—–both focus on a terribly delinquent officer riding a descending rollercoaster into madness. One of the edgier moments of Ferrara’s flick, in which Keitel uses his authority to coax a young woman into perform sexual acts, is even channeled by Herzog here. But the comparisons should stop there. In the ’92 devastator, Harvey Kietel’s nameless blowhard is in the crust of religious questioning, a search for personal salvation that doesn’t end well; in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, however, Cage’s horrible ways ultimately pay off. He’s not looking for answers or a means of escape; rather, he embraces his filthy life, and is ironically rewarded for doing so.
As it plays out, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is, at this late-November interval, the year’s most unexpectedly funny film. I’m not even sure if The Hangover (2009’s best comedy) has a moment that made me chuckle as recklessly as Bad Lieutenant‘s breakdancing soul sequence. Xzibit, who’s in cahoots with Cage at this point, has, along with his two cronies, emptied sufficient rounds into a trio of Mafia heavies that are after Cage for an unpaid debt. Looking at the head mob-guy, who’s lying dead on the floor, Cage—-having just snorted tons of blow—-says to Xzibit, “Shoot him again; his soul’s still dancing.” Then, cut to a dance-double of the Mafia head, doing his best Breakin’ 2: Electric Bugaloo tribute. The sheer absurdity of it is pretty great.
The film’s screenplay, written by William Finkelstein, deserves almost as much credit as Cage and Herzog. The story’s resolution doesn’t play out as one would anticipate, and the relationship between Cage and his favorite prostitute/quasi-girlfriend (Eva Mendes, looking as gorgeous and charismatic as ever) is handled with surprising delicacy. In the end, though, the film belongs to Nicolas Cage, and it’s a credibility-reviving piece of acting. When ’09 draws to a late-December close, this could very likely end up being my favorite performance of the year, in fact. Well, behind those of Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent; comparing any 2009 film to Inglourious Basterds, in my head, is a smidge defeatist.
LINK: A well-written, edited-for-print piece of this same nature, from a dramatically more seasoned film-critic’s perspective: