Review - The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans

Directed by Werner Herzog
Written by William F. Finkelstein, based on the earlier screenplay by Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Abel Ferrara and Zoe Lund
Starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner, Brad Dourif

Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans is an archetypal example of Absurdist cinema. Its characters are constantly seeking clarity, fulfilment and answers and never truly obtain them. It has one of the most unexpected "happy endings" I've ever seen a flick end on and yet one that still leaves its titular character spent and looking utterly lost. His last word to the camera is not so much a word as it is a syllable, a single, knowing "Heh" uttered possibly to himself, possibly to whomever is watching.

It is also incredibly absurd. In its nearly two hour running time there was no shortage of moments where I couldn't decide whether to gasp or burst out laughing, though most of the time I instinctually ended up doing the latter. Its latter half is rife with hallucinations, ranging from a pair of placid of undeniably sinister-looking iguanas to a dead debt collector's breakdancing soul. In fact, I have my doubts that the aforementioned obscenely happy ending isn't some massive drug-fueled delusion. As blasphemous as it sounds, I've never previously seen any of Herzog's films but I have a funny feeling the man likes to fuck with his audience, because that's the distinct impression I got from watching this film.

Don't get me wrong: it's not a bad film by any means. In fact, I'd go so far to say it's really, really good, not so much a soul-crushing search for redemption as its Abel Ferrara-directed predecessor allegedly is (I say allegedly because I've never seen it), but rather a dark, dark comedy. Try to imagine a crime drama in which the protagonist is an excessively corrupt New Orleans police lieutenant who acts like the love child of Jack Nicholson in The Departed and Heath Ledger's Joker, all the while channeling a drugged-up Jimmy Stewart, and you'll quickly be able to comprehend what exactly this film is like. You'll also wonder how in the Hell it could be classified a crime "drama," seeing as how the film is possibly as cruelly hilarious as they come.

Nicolas Cage IS Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, New Orleans Police Department. McDonagh is a smart-alecky yet decent enough cop for about five minutes, said five minutes being the first of the movie. In a twist that fully defines the term "cruelly ironic," a heroic action on McDonagh's part sends him quickly and violently on the path to Perdition. McDonagh severely injures his back while saving a prisoner from drowning in the veritable clusterfuck that was post-Katrina 'Nawleans. In search of newer and better ways to deaden the pain, he goes from Vicodin to cocaine in less than half a year, snorting the stuff like there's no tomorrow with his prostitute girlfriend Franky (Eva Mendes). That which he can't obtain through routine shakedowns or looting the evidence room he gets through coercion. In one case, he accepts a sexual bribe from a clubbing twentysomething as her boyfriend is forced to watch. When he tries to run, McDonagh fires a warning shot in the air. It's one of the previously-mentioned scenes during which I didn't know how to react.

Cage's acting career is most effectively described as "idiosyncratic." Roger Ebert is one of Cage's few champions in the critical community and has in the past described him as fearless. It's hard to disagree, but that being said, the occasional bit of caution doesn't hurt. Cage seems to take after the Christopher Walken school of casting--that is, to nab any and every role he can fit into his schedule. As a result, he'll have a streak of flicks that range from mediocre (National Treasure) to outright terrible (The Wicker Man), and then all of a sudden create art (Adaptation).

I hesitate to call Herzog's Bad Lieutenant a work of art but it certainly is one of Cage's better exceptions. His performance is almost entirely devoid of subtlety, but as the role never calls for understatement this isn't necessarily a bad thing. He plays McDonagh's back injury with his left shoulder near-permanently raised higher than the right and doing full-body pivots in place of turning his head. His eyes are best described as "leering." Earlier in this review I compared him to Heath Ledger's Joker and by no coincidence: after watching this film--in particular a scene in which he smokes crack with a New Orleans drug kingpin (Xzibit) and his cronies--I seriously want to see how Cage would play the Clown Prince of Crime.

Going way back, I mentioned that the film has a happy ending, or rather a Happy Ending. I capitalize because the film's conclusion, in structure, is typical of any film where the good guy saves the day, gets the girl, and lives happily ever after. Though in this case I am very, very apprehensively calling McDonagh a good guy. I would say it ends too good, given the subject matter, but it doesn't feel forced. Weird? Oh, certainly. But not forced. Instead, we are treated to a man who has achieved everything he could have ever hoped to achieve--a well-paying job, a solid reputation, and a loving partner with a child on the way.

I also mentioned that his last utterance in the film is a single, knowing chuckle. Herzog does not make this gesture needlessly, pretentiously complex in its symbolism, but straightforward: it's the laugh a man who has reached the top only after sacrificing every last ounce of moral and ethical integrity in his system and no one knows the wiser. In its own way the chuckle is strangely fulfilling for both McDonagh and the audience, and possibly Cage's only subtle moment in the film. I imagine T.S. Eliot would get a kick out of this ending.

Truth be told, I couldn't have asked for a better non sequitur. Bravo, Mr. Herzog. Bravo.

No comments: