Right off the bat I want to say that I loved this movie! I thought it was fantastic and I was completely enthralled and entertained the entire time I was watching it. That being said, I recognize that the movie is a train-wreck. It is in no way a well made film, it has holes and an odd unevenness throughout the entire movie but I think that is what the filmmaker intended. Director Werner Herzog has a reputation for making strange and abstract films and if that was the filmmaker’s intent then he absolutely succeeded with this film. I believe Herzog set out to make a purposely funny and over-the-top film in the tradition of his idea of film noir and for that I truly do applaud him because the result is a fast-paced, exciting, yet strange and at times completely bizarre but still entertaining film experience.
For example, there is an average looking scene in the movie, one that we’ve seen in films a hundred times before, two cops on a steak-out. But the difference is in this scene the director lets the action play out from the point of view of two imaginary iguanas that are sitting on a table. Yes, I said imaginary iguanas. The shot goes on with wonderfully creepy music for an unsettling three or four minutes, which seems like an eternity on film and is just one example of the wonderful non-sense that Herzog has packed into this movie. In fact, there are several scenes like this, another that focuses on an alligator for no apparent reason and yet another where a gangster has been shot by another gangster and a wonderfully over-the-top Nicolas Cage says, “Shoot him again. His soul is still dancing,” and we see the actor playing the dead gangster break-dancing next to his own dead body. All of these WTF scenes are added in a genius way to help get across to the audience what Cage’s character, which is completely whacked out on drugs, is going through.
The film, which uses New Orleans as a backdrop begins during the height of the Katrina Hurricane and introduces us to police sergeant Terrence McDonagh played by Nicolas Cage. When he and his partner Steve Pruit (Val Kilmer) find a drowning convict, McDonagh heroically saves him but injures his back in the process. Once he is back and ready for duty he is awarded a Lieutenant’s title for his bravery during the storm but unknown to his colleagues he is suffering from extreme back pain and is on serious medication for it. Cage’s performance is quite remarkable when you consider that you can read the pain on his face throughout the film and Cage even adopts moving his entire body to look at someone rather than moving his neck, which is a gesture that really pays off in his communicating the pain that his character is going through to the audience. Eventually, McDonagh finds he needs a stronger medication and begins rousting pimps, hookers and dealers for harder drugs. Now, completely loaded on smack and in charge of a murder investigation of a family of African immigrants McDonagh is forced to face his own demons. Every step he takes he makes one move more dangerous than the last and begins a downward spiral that could eventually destroy him. Added to the mix is his hooker-girlfriend played by Eva Mendes who gets McDonagh into trouble with the mob. Now amongst several investigations that could cost him his job and problems with organized crime, McDonagh concocts a deal with drug dealer Big Fate (Ezibit), which could solve his problems, land him in jail or leave him dead.
Cage himself is at his “scenery-chewing” best looking like his head is about to explode in most scenes. He really gives an amazing performance as only Cage can in an otherwise ridiculous role that I really don’t think any other actor besides Cage could actually pull off. At times, over-acting and perhaps boarder-lining bad acting Cage’s performance is always believable and yet shocking and hilariously wonderful at the same time. Another great scene for Cage is when he is threatening an innocent old woman and cuts off her oxygen in order to get some answers. You can really feel that Cage is having fun in that scene and another where he is forcing a girl to have sex with him and making her boyfriend watch at gunpoint. The rest of the cast is excellent and Herzog certainly surrounded Cage with some excellent veteran actors like Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Vondie Curtis Hall, Shawn Hatosy, Michael Shannon, Fairuza Balk and Jennifer Coolidge. Mendes gives a strong performance as McDonagh’s hooker girlfriend who becomes sober throughout the course of the film. Although her character is absent for part of the film I did like the way her gentle performance complimented Cage’s over-the-top cop and made you believe that it was possible for these two people to be together.
Although the movie shares a name with the 1992 film “Bad Lieutenant” I assure you that other than featuring a corrupt policeman in the title role the two films have nothing in common. This film however is strange, odd, weirdly paced and at times bizarre and I loved it for that. Director Herzog, Cage and the entire cast for that matter take a giant swing with this film. Did they hit it out of the park? I don’t think so but I really appreciated that they had the balls (no pun intended) to at least take a swing. So many actors and filmmakers are timid these days, only willing to try what works but here is an example of a group of established artists saying, “Let’s not be safe, lets take a risk.” Does it pay off? Yes and no. The movie is terribly uneven, but again I think that was intended and what the audience is left with is an exciting, funny and entertaining film that will shock you and leave you thinking about it and dissecting it in your head for days. In the end, I think that Herzog made a movie that some might really appreciate and others might not get at all but what he has achieved is a unique film going experience that any true student of the cinema needs to look at with a open mind. It should also stand as a lesson to Hollywood on how to make interesting, out-of-the-box, risky and unusual films with big name stars that can attract a wide audience.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is out May 21, 2009.