Experiencing a good Nicolas Cage movie is like witnessing a total solar eclipse; it’s rare, and if you’re lucky enough to catch one, it’s spectacular. Combine the eccentric Cage at his bizarre best with the notoriously weird genius of luminary director, Werner Herzog, and you’ve got pseudo-noir masterpiece of epic, hallucinogenic proportions.
“The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” definitely not a remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Harvey Keitel vehicle, “Bad Lieutenant,” centers on the life and times of an ostensibly good detective, Terence McDonagh (Cage), with a sharp mind and good instincts. He’s awarded a medal of valor and the rank of lieutenant after saving the life of a drowning inmate in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Though it is this act of heroism that proves to be his undoing. McDonagh injures his back during the rescue and gets hooked on the painkillers prescribed him ultimately leading to corruption, hardcore addiction, sexual deviance and manic unintelligible Herzogian hysteria.
Penned by TV writer, William M. Finkelstein, the script is more than quirky. It’s essentially a series of absurd and seemingly unrelated episodes of drug abuse, murder, sexual exploitation, hallucinations of iguanas and break-dancing souls of dead drug lords, punctuated by memorable one-liners delivered by a free-wheelin’ lucid Nic Cage who’s self-aware performance is at once ridiculous and brilliant.
Cage’s characterization is a wacky mixture of the neurotic Charlie Kaufman in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation” and the goofy Herbert I. “Hi” McDunnough in the Coen brothers’ “Raising Arizona” (McDonagh and McDunnough? Coincidence?), and may be his best performance since Jonze’s meta, surreal film.
Herzog’s direction is less meditative and unrelenting than in his classics, “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” or “Fitzcarraldo,” but is just as inventive and unorthodox. His obsession with self-destructive anti-heroes is as fascinating as ever with Nic Cage assuming Klaus Kinski’s role as imploding prima donna.
Frankie Donnenfeld (Eva Mendes), a hooker with a heart of gold, is McDonagh’s only haven of human connection and sanity in the dark reality he’s created for himself. Very telling considering she’s a hardcore addict herself and sells her body to anybody with enough cash, or dope. Mendes, despite her cliched role and lack of motivation serves up a likable characterization with a magnetic performance.
And really, motivation doesn’t matter all that much in a Herzog film. He’s more interested in the acts themselves than the motives behind them. In fact, “Bad Lieutenant” probably avoided a disaster by ignoring traditional storytelling conventions, and instead Herzog ends up with a thrilling comedy that’s both laughable and heartily entertaining. And it’s hard to dislike a film that features Val Kilmer acting like a prick.