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Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Bad Lieutenant Port Of Call - New Orleans

There are two Nicolas Cage films coming out very soon (or perhaps are already out overseas). One is rather weak and I really, really didn't like it. The other is absolutely, head-smashingly AWFUL and I kind of loved the hell out of it. Go figure. I'll let you know closer to their release dates which one is which but in the meantime I thought I would take a look at a film from last year (or the year before in the UK and US, I believe) that really shows Cage at his gloriously demented best. 

From (originally written 27 August 2010)

What it's about:

Set in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, The Bad Lieutenant follows Lieutenant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), a policeman who is, by and large, viler and nastier than the criminals. Charged with solving the brutal murder of an entire family of African immigrants, his investigation is constantly sidelined by addictions to drugs and gambling.   

What we thought:

Nominally, a sort-of remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 film, The Bad Lieutenant (or, to give it its full name, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans) is infamous German filmmaker Werner Herzog's own take on the same basic idea. Like Herzog himself, apparently, I have not seen the original film but I would be very surprised if the two had anything but the most passing of surface details in common. Love it or hate it, I guarantee you won't see another film like Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant this year.

Make no mistake, this film will undoubtedly polarize audiences, especially if the comments on the Internet Movie Database are to be believed. Personally, I loved the hell out of every minute of it but it's definitely the case that you'll either go with Herzog and his amoral, nihilistic and unutterably bonkers take on the crime film or you'll be left feeling confused, alienated and more than a little angry.

This is a film that takes any and all preconceived notions about the genre and turns them on their head. We have at the centre of the film a character that, under normal circumstances, would either be used as a catalyst for a story of redemption or, if the film were to go a tragic route, a descent into hell. Herzog and screenwriter William M. Finkelstein do neither. Even madder, this is a crime film where the action suddenly comes to a halt to make way for an up close and personal look at the romantic life of two iguanas as a totally incongruous soul ballad plays in the background. I kid you not. I'm sure some film buffs, critics and students will find some greater meaning in all this but, personally, I see this as nothing more than Herzog again screwing with his audience, knocking the film even further off the rails. 

I've talked a lot about Herzog but the success (or, depending on your perspective, the crushing failure) of the film lies at least as much in the hands of its star Nicolas Cage. Kick-Ass, released earlier this year, was a genuine return to form for Cage who has floundered for years, giving mostly bland performances in sub-par movies. His great work in Leaving Las Vegas, Matchstick Men, Adaptation and even Face Off quickly started to seem like the fading glimmers of a once bright star that has been fading constantly over at least the last half decade. Well, that star has very clearly been reignited during this last year: He was terrific in Kick-Ass and he's even better here. 

In many ways, this is the role that Cage was born to play. Cage is an actor of a unique intensity with an arsenal of odd tics and mannerisms. When these tendencies are misused he can be a fairly irritating screen presence, but in Lt. Terence McDonagh he has found a character that not only brings out his strengths but highlights them. McDonagh's actions are fairly rotten for a cop but are clearly small fry in comparison to the hardened criminals he hunts down. And still he seems far, far worse simply because of the way Cage portrays him. 

A hunched posture here, a threatening walk there and bulging eyes everywhere are almost enough to create the effect on their own but its his genuinely violent, ranting and raving style of talking/screaming that really makes the character so utterly terrifying. In keeping with the rest of the film, there isn't much depth to the character and you're certainly not going to sympathise with him but I don't know if there's been a more magnetic and electrifying screen persona this year.

The Bad Lieutenant might not be for everyone but go in with an open mind and your sense of humour firmly set to "twisted", you may well find much to enjoy. If not, just stick around for that central, brilliantly controlled out-of-control performance. It's really not to be missed.

South African readers buy Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant DVD from Take2

International readers buy it from

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