Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

By Elise Nakhnikian

The camera in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans keeps dropping down to slink along at eye level, often tracking some reptile – a snake, a gator, a pair of iguanas – as they take in the scene. Director Werner Herzog has a habit of inserting references to the malevolence of nature into his movies, but that’s not all he’s doing this time around. Those gator-cam shots help give Bad Lieutenant a trippy, Hunter Thompson-ish vibe. And when Herzog uses the same trick to film Nicholas Cage in the title role, you see his Terence McDonagh as another dangerous predator prowling the half-deserted streets of post-Katrina New Orleans.

We need that reminder. McDonagh, who starts off as a police lieutenant and winds up a captain, is such a charismatic kook – and so good at his job, except when he’s awful – that you sometimes start to forget what a nasty piece of work he can be. He’s both good cop and bad cop, single-mindedly and inventively tracking down the people responsible for killing a family in their home while raiding the evidence room for drugs he can inhale.

Drugs are McDonagh’s Achilles’ heel, though you get the feeling he’d be pretty messed up even without them. Cagey, reckless, and unpredictable, he’s prone to impulsive actions and violent extremes, so it doesn’t help that he’s strung out on Vicodin, which he supplements with coke, crack, and heroin.

Still, he’s good company. Cage gives McDonagh a manic energy that makes him hard to resist, whether he’s erupting in hysterical giggles over a drug-induced hallucination, roughing up a john who beat up his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), or nodding out on a couch with his father’s slovenly girlfriend (Jennifer Coolidge, proving that she can play it straight).

Just to give you an idea of how crazy Cage plays it, Val Kilmer is his partner and Brad Dourif is his bookie, and both actors feel tame next to Cage. His McDonagh even looks odd, between the hairline receded so far it looks like a yarmulke and the back injury that makes him lumber like Frankenstein’s monster.

Screenwriter William Finkelstein, who has written a lot of TV cop shows, leavens the gonzo stuff with plenty of realism. McDonagh plants evidence to convict the killer when he can’t nail him through legitimate channels, and the scenes where he and his partner interrogate people feel unsettlingly authentic. So does the bone-dry sense of humor that makes him snicker at a gangster’s lame street name or compliment someone he arrests for his family values. “You may be hiding in the armoire, but your child knows you’re here,” he tells him.

The movie shares a title -- or part of one—with Abel Ferrara’s 1992 New York City-based Bad Lieutenant, whose producers envisioned this as a very loose sequel. But aside from the fact that both are about police detectives who are addicted to Vicodin for back pain and who do some very good police work along with some very bad things, the two movies don’t have much in common. And that’s a good thing, since Harvey Keitel’s dour performance and the humorless, self-serious tone of the original made it a drag.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans may be a little uneven – an oddly happy near-ending followed by an inscrutable actual ending left me a unsatisfied – but it’s brimming with juice and always entertaining.

Faces are often half-hidden in the smudged darkness, shadows pooling in their eye sockets, to augment the sense that you never know what someone’s likely to do next – not to mention the murkiness of McDonagh’s morals. But there’s nothing indistinct about this movie. Herzog stuffs the frame with fascinating visuals and sound bites, from a throwaway shot of a dwarf crossing a bleak-looking street to the slot machines in Biloxi that constantly nag passersby to “Insert more coins!”

And just wait till you hear what McDonagh has to say to a dignified elderly woman and her even more dignified nursing assistant in an upscale assisted living facility. That scene alone was enough to earn him his title, if you ask me.

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