Film Review: Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call New Orleans

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“I love it”

(Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog, USA, 2009, 121 minutes)

Anyone who is only familiar with Nicolas Cage through his recent roles in such films as Next, Bangkok Dangerous, Knowing and The Wicker Man could be forgiven for thinking that he is dull, emotionless and lacking in the kind of charisma that befits one of Hollywood’s foremost leading men. Indeed Cage’s recent efforts have left a lot to be desired, his choice of films have been poor and his performances have added little to the reputation of the man who, in the late eighties through to the mid nineties, brought to life some of the most exciting, unhinged characters in recent Hollywood history. Fortunately, in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call New Orleans, Nicolas Cage is back. With a vengeance.

The film, set in New Orleans, opens in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with Cage’s character, Terence McDonagh, in a rare moment of empathy, diving into a flooded prison corridor to release a prisoner from his cell before he is drowned. In doing so he injures his back severely, and is in a considerable amount of pain at all times. Whether this is the reason for his resultant drug and alcohol abuse is never made entirely clear, Herzog chooses not to linger on such detail, instead throwing us into the deep end of Terence’s life as he precariously balances his duties as a policeman with his various drug habits, gambling addiction and relationship with a high-end prostitute (Eva Mendes’ Frankie). There is a plot involving the murder of an African family in their home and the attempt to catch the gangster responsible, but this is never given the viewer’s, or indeed Herzog’s, full attention. The film is a character piece about a man who is impossible to define. Terence abuses his power, steals drugs from evidence lockers, bullies young men and old women alike and yet at times shows a real commitment to his job, and determination to see justice take its course, no matter how warped his view on the subject may be. All of these aspects are brought to life masterfully by Cage, whose performance is truly one of the most memorable in any Hollywood film for some time. Cage’s depiction of a crazed, drug addled and conflicted man draws not only on his flawless delivery, it comes from every gnarled, awkward movement of his body, every expression on his face, meaning that any time he is on the screen it is impossible to look away. Earlier in the year when Kick-Ass came to our screens, many people commented that a renewed spark was evident in Nicolas Cage’s performance. If that is the case then in Bad Lieutenant he well and truly bursts into flames, delivering the kind of performance that will thrill fans of his earlier work and surprise those who are not familiar with it. In one scene, after apprehending a criminal, Terence comes out of a house with a huge smile on his face and proclaims “I love it…I love it”, it is clear from his performance that Cage does indeed love the role that Werner Herzog’s film has given him.

While Cage inevitably steals the show much of the films enjoyment is also derived from Herzog’s direction. The saxophone strains and murky pans across the city that accompany the opening scenes are the stuff of pure Film Noir, the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina seems to serve as a metaphor for the dark undercurrents running through New Orleans that the film will expose. However Herzog certainly cannot be accused of being conventional, some scenes are reminiscent of his documentary work, others, such as point of view shots from an Alligator and an Iguana are simply baffling, and the decision to include them in what is, to date, his most commercial venture in American film-making is a brave one on Herzog’s part, and one which pays off. The tonal and stylistics shifts in the direction add to the feelings of unease and uncertainty that permeate throughout the film, and allow the viewer a small glimpse into how Terence McDonagh must experience the world.

Good support is also provided by Mendes as Terence’s prostitute girlfriend, exploiting a more tender, caring side of his character, as well as by Tom Bower and Jennifer Coolidge as his dad and step-mother, and Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner as the gangster under investigation. While all these elements combine to make Bad Lieutenant an enjoyable thriller, it is through Cage’s stunning performance that it becomes an enthralling, powerful and darkly humorous character study that resonates powerfully long after viewing, and immediately demands to be seen again.

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