Nicolas Cage has said, "There's a very fine line between Method actor and schizophrenic." In Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, he teeters that line maniacally, with an ever-increasing slur and crooked swagger. Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a detective in post-Katrina New Orleans investigating a drug-related murder and his personal threshold for cocaine and heroin.
The first news of Bad Lieutenant was puzzling: famously extreme director Werner Herzog re-imagining a 1992 cult movie, also called Bad Lieutenant, but shifting the action to New Orleans and casting Nic Cage in the Harvey Keitel role opposite his Ghost Rider costar Eva Mendes. Weird.
But in fact, Bad Lieutenant is Herzog's second surprisingly accessible movie in as many years, following 2007's Rescue Dawn. And Cage is brilliant in a role seemingly made for him, so
The noirish, pulpy, desperate, and often hilarious film opens with a good deed: McDonagh dives into a Katrina-flooded jail cell to save a prisoner's life, in the process injuring his back and subsequently getting hooked on Vicodin and then far harder drugs.
As a degenerate cop in a washed-out city, Cage makes Denzel Washington's Training Day villain look like a Boy Scout. He slithers through the streets, confiscating drugs to snort with his prostitute girlfriend (Mendes), hooking up with a drug kingpin played by Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner, and fending off a rising tide of self-created trouble. "Being courteous is really getting in the way of my progress," he croaks before one of his more disturbing moral lapses.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, Herzog has found the perfect setting. He never lets the city look pretty or even charmingly decayed, and he populates it with iguanas and alligators and snakes and fish. At every turn, McDonagh is confronted by cold-blooded animals, as he careens between the call of duty and the cold-blooded instinct of his addiction. It's impossible to ignore the reptilian symbolism, and the effect is perfectly bizarre. Despite its darkest moments, Bad Lieutenant is a remarkably good trip.
Photos Courtesy First Look Studios