Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Rarely does a film's quality rest so heavily on one actor, but this movie (oddly enough, not a sequel of any kind to the 1992 Harvey Keitel vehicle, Bad Lieutenant) is completely dependent on Cage. Sure, the supporting cast here is pretty solid, but that's just icing on the cake. Fairuza Balk shows up for a few minutes and plays against type by not being a goth chick for once. Eva Mendes plays Cage's junkie hooker girlfriend about as well as you would expect her to (she's pretty and can memorize lines). Alvin Joiner (AKA rapper Xzibit) does a better than average job as a scary drug lord, but I think the real revelation for him is why he needed a rap pseudonym in the first place. Isn't "Alvin" tough enough? I find it hard to believe that misspelling something that belongs in a museum is much tougher than a rascally chipmunk. Tom Bower is fine as Cage's AA-bound father, but it's his beer-swilling wife that is the surprise. Jennifer Coolidge (Stifler's mom in the American Pie movies) makes a surprisingly unglamorous appearance as Cage's step-mom; she actually turns in a pretty good dramatic performance here, but my immediate reaction was to how appropriately haggard she looks. Val Kilmer has a small but key supporting role and, miraculously, does it well and doesn't try to out-overact Cage.
All that is inconsequential, though. This is the story of Terence McDonagh (Nic Cage), a police officer in New Orleans. The movie takes place shortly after Hurricane Katrina, although it doesn't mention the disaster much after the first scene. That first scene is important for two reasons, though. First, it explains why this New Orleans movie is not about Mardi Gras. Second, McDonagh hurts his back in this scene and the result is a permanent injury that even McDonagh's doctor admits will not be completely helped by pain medication. That serves as the justification for this character to seek out any relief he can from the pain, be it drugs (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and crack), sex (with his hooker girlfriend or a civilian in lieu of arrest), or gambling (often and poorly). In the middle of all this vice, there is a homicide case that McDonagh is supposed to be solving. The funny thing about this cop movie is that the case is really secondary to the character. As a viewer, you are never really drawn into the details of the crime because McDonagh treats it like a job, not an obsession (rare in movie cops). This film shows McDonagh doing absolutely everything wrong until the walls all start closing in on him. He doesn't stop, mind you. His mounting gambling debts are starting to creep into his professional life, his addictions have caused him to act in ways that get Internal Affairs actively interested in taking his badge, he has opted to sell information to drug dealers that are willing to kill him, and his vice-sharing girlfriend decides to clean up her life and stop using drugs. The only question is what will be the first part of his life to ruin him?
Now, that sounds like a really depressing movie, but it's not. Sure, the back injury can be seen as a justification for McDonaugh's actions, but this film never makes excuses for his behavior. As such, this is not a story with a moral, and that makes all the difference. Instead, director Werner Herzog must have asked Nic Cage if he wanted to pretend to be out-of-his-mind-crazy on film for two hours. Never one to turn down the opportunity to overact, Cage obliged. It's a good thing he did, too, because Cage is a treat here. He's weird, though. He walks around with a hunched back throughout the film. He throws out some truly bizarre laughs out of nowhere. He makes you think that Johnny Depp should have studied him for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, THAT'S how drugged up Cage acts. Cage's performance isn't seen through his own druggy lens, though; instead of seeing how McDonaugh sees the world while high, we see how high the world sees McDonaugh. Well, that's true for most of the movie. There is a scene where Herzog allows Cage's drug use to subtly affect how he interprets a TV broadcast. There's another, less subtle scene where Cage hallucinates iguanas and the camera assumes the point of view of an iguana for about two minutes. Regardless of the point of view, Cage turns in one of the best performances of his career and
It's difficult to describe an actor acting high without sounding like you should have been an extra in Dazed and Confused. Imagine The Shield if Michael Chiklis was in-orbit-high. That's the best parallel for this film that I can draw for you. There's a lot of gritty crime stuff going wrong and McDonaugh is obviously crazy and deserves to be jailed for his many, many indiscretions, but then you see a moment that shows what an awesome police officer he is. Or another moment that shows how horrifying it can be to have someone this twisted in a position of power. Those moments are what make this film hang together. There's a scene toward the end of the film where Val Kilmer's character shows that he might actually be, in some ways, worse than Cage as an officer of the law. You'll notice that the movie poster doesn't include "The" in the title; it looks like a clue that, as bad as Cage's character is, he's not the bad lieutenant. He's just one of many.