Last time Nicolas Cage played a ‘man of the law’, it was in The Wicker Man. What marks that misguided remake apart from this one (or at least that’s what Abel Ferrera would suggest) is that The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans (to give its full title) is actually intentionally hilarious and genuinely brilliant. Like director Werner Herzog, I too have not seen the Harvey Keitel-starring original, but any similarities are presumably through use of the title (to which Herzog himself was opposed) and loose thematic associations. Besides, it’s not something to get too hung up when what we have here is the most gleefully entertaining depiction of moral bankruptcy since Bad Santa.
Post-Katrina New Orleans, and recently decorated Lieutenant Terence McDonagh is assigned to investigate the execution-style massacre of a family of Senegalese illegal immigrants. Suffering from chronic back pain and with prescription medicine not providing quite the relief he needs, he becomes increasingly dependent on seized narcotics, which he frequently shares with prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes). As his mental and physical state becomes more fractured, so too does he start to lose grip on both his personal and professional lives that are becoming ever more intertwined. Will he crack before the case does? Mmmm, crack…
Yes, The Bad Lieutenant is a very bad man indeed. An anti-hero who learns from his mistakes not in a way that he won’t make them again, but when he does inevitably re-offend, he’ll enjoy himself more. With his hunched walk, never-changing suit and dirty mouth, McDonagh starts off unhinged and gets progressively worse, going to some jaw-dropping and hysterical lengths to solve the crime, get out of the multiple holes he digs himself into, or just to get his next fix.
Here, for the first time in a long while, it’s not a case of Cage being only ever as good as the film he is in. Unlike, say, Christopher Walken, it’ll never be the case that he’s the best thing in a bad movie; indeed, in many instances he’ll try his very best to be just as awful as the surrounding mess and embellish terrible dialogue to Razzie-baiting depths. But here, the tables are somewhat turned. Cage IS The Bad Lieutenant, and The Bad Lieutenant excels because of him. That’s not to suggest that the film itself is lacklustre. Far from it, the supporting cast are uniformly excellent, and the New Orleans setting, loaded with plenty of recent social significance, presents the perfect backdrop for McDonagh’s disintegration, his moments of madness shot with style, humour, and a peculiar affinity for reptiles (the natural world clearly factoring highly in Werzog’s recent work). But ultimately it is Cage’s barn-storming lead performance that makes the greatest impact and proves that few other actors can quite match him when he’s in wild-and-crazy mode.
By skewing grittiness in favour of the absurd, The Bad Lieutentant is as footloose and fancy free anything this sodden with substance abuse and filthy language could possibly be, and is all the better for it. Freed from the burden of self-regulatory sermonising that a lesser talent than Herzog would be obliged to include, The Bad Lieutenant is a raucuous and refreshing work that is destined to become a cult classic. Just don’t try it at home, kids.
The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleansis released in UK cinemas May 21st.