Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Werner Herzog claims never to have seen Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (neither have I) and that's OK, since Herzog's tale of a drug-addled cop in post-Katrina New Orleans reminded me more a Western than a story of hellish '90s New York. We don't know much about what kind of cop Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage in a carefully calibrated freakout) was before he injured his back saving a prisoner from drowning, but when he returns to duty he's nursing a slightly too-big crush on Vicodin and shaking down club goers for stronger drugs. Unlike his fellow cop Stevie (Val Kilmer), McDonagh is a still a company man and he attacks the murder of a Senegalese family with a fury that belies the external pressures he's under. In addition to his drug problem Terence has a stout gambling habit as in on the verge of being cut off by his bookie (Brad Dourif, whose time on Deadwood feels like the right credential for this role)This performance is too weird and the film too small to provide Cage with the comeback he badly needs, but it at least rehabilitates him critically to a degree. There's not a moment that doesn't feel honest, and Cage may be the best around at playing careful delineations of chemical imbalance.

Werner Herzog's New Orleans is a empty-feeling wasteland up for the taking; the goal of drug dealer and murder suspect Big Fate (Alvin Xzibit Joiner) is to buy up enough condo-ready riverfront property to become a legitimate player in the city's revitalization. There's no sense of a battered community on the mend; McDonagh, his girlfriend/fellow addict Frankie (Eva Mendes), and Big Fate are all survivors who've made it in spite of the city and not because of it. I'm not going to guess what Herzog has in mind with his versions of McDonagh's drugged-out visions (Oh, may "What are these f-ing iguanas doing on my coffee table?" become the next "I drink your milkshake."), but Bad Lieutenant would have been just another procedural had it not been for Cage and for Herzog's outsider's eye. The story of McDonagh and Big Fate rolls to a close rather than stopping but that's no problem; watching Cage's lost soul sort of find is his way is the real show. One other note: Jennifer Coolidge, the broad comedienne who has plied her ditz in everything from Christopher Guest movies to Secret Life of the American Teenager is unrecognizable as the alcoholic wife of McDonagh's father (Tom Bower). I don't know how Coolidge got cast in this role, but she has a future as a character actress.

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