By Marty Mulrooney
Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call – New Orleans (or simply Bad Lieutenant as it is being advertised here in the UK) is a 2009 American crime drama directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicolas Cage. I had only previously been exposed to director Herzog’s work in the 2007 film Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale, finding it a solid if not spectacular drama. I am also not the biggest fan of Nicolas Cage, although his recent supporting role in Kick-Ass was fantastic. This left me somewhat vague about what to expect here with the late UK release of Bad Lieutenant in 2010.
Of course, my interest soon perked up substantially when the reviews and awards started rolling in. This has undoubtedly been an extremely well received film, winning several awards at various film festivals and appearing on many heavyweight film critic’s top 10 lists in 2009. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (a film critic I hold in particularly high regard, even if his recent dismissal of videogames as art grated on me somewhat) gave both the film and Nicolas Cage a glowing review. I decided to take the plunge.
Please note: it is immediately apparent that this is not a remake of Abbel Farrara’s 1992 film of the same name, even if it does share some superficial similarities (such as Harvey Keitel’s New York drug addicted cop). This is very much an entirely new, separate film. Given Farrara’s recent public outrage at this supposed remake, it raises the question of why this film even has the same name in the first place… yet this surely matters little in the end.
Nicolas Cage plays a New Orleans Police Sergeant named Terrence McDonagh, who is first introduced to us, along with his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer), in a flooded prison during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. His one kind-hearted decision at the beginning of the film quickly comes back to bite him in the ass. Jumping into the water to rescue a trapped prisoner with a broken leg results in an off-screen back injury for Terrence: six months later, he is now constantly on pain killers, which he tops up daily with a cocktail of marijuana, cocaine and anything else he can lay his hands on.
Now if there is one emotion that Cage can convey to perfection, it is sheer lunacy. There is often something demented in the actor’s eyes that, when played right, can work wonders. It may provide somewhat uncomfortable viewing, but seeing the actor roll up to a young rich couple, steal their drugs and then have sex with the woman against their car while forcing her boyfriend to watch at gunpoint is undeniably effective on some primal, train-wreckesque level. Cage knows this lieutenant is bad and he intends to share that basic truth with the viewer as quickly and effectively as possible. He may have a habit of overacting but if the intention is to show somebody out of their mind on drugs, then mission accomplished. Cage is practically going insane on-screen.
This shocking portrayal of a drugged up madman is constantly at the forefront of Bad Lieutenant, with the ongoing plot remaining largely secondary. There is of course the staple investigation of a horrific crime, this time dealing with the execution of six illegal immigrants, but it never seems to come into focus. This is obviously a directorial decision: although incapable of being moved to tears by the victim’s grieving family, Terrence is nonetheless committed enough to find a witness that he will remove an old woman’s oxygen supply to gain her cooperation.
These are the moments that will remain fresh once the credits role. Cage constantly holds himself in a stilted, maisonette-like pose, his oversized magnum an obvious extension of his penis, used to get whatever he needs, even if he seldom fires it. He bullies and threatens his way out of every situation, as likely to break out in a maniacal smile as he is to suddenly turn aggressive.
Sadly, this is where the film falters. It is also the reason I cannot understand the nearly unanimous praise heaped upon Bad Lieutenant. There is such a focus on Cage’s unhinged character that everything else just fades into background noise. Eva Mendes as Terrence’s high class prostitute girlfriend serves as little more than a plot device, there to be high, or to be caring, or to be determined to clean up her act. She is a lead character that does so many different things throughout whilst still managing to remain a blank, emotionless slate. You could argue this is supposedly due to drugs numbing her emotions, but I just didn’t buy the performance at all.
Likewise, the rest of the supporting cast are practically wasted. Val Kilmer was fantastic in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which should have signalled a return to form. Yet here, whilst not bad, he isn’t exactly fantastic either. If anything, he looks rather washed up. Perhaps this was the director’s intention: seeing Cage and Kilmer side by side looks like a portrait of two men who are starting to edge past whatever prime they could have had. The inclusion of Xzibit is at best perfunctorily in its execution: rappers have successfully starred as gangster types in films before and it does work to a degree here. But where is the actual acting? And why is everyone just cruising along whilst Nicolas Cage goes crazy?
Because it is his film at heart. Director Herzog has created a platform for the actor to cut loose and go wild. It can at time be fascinating to watch, but is it an actual film? Arty folks may lap it up, but I am rather old-fashioned when it comes to plot and emotional involvement. I want to feel something. Heck, Tony Montana in Scarface was as bad as they come, but I still liked him regardless of his questionable sanity. Plus, this demented mindset didn’t need to be amplified by all of the supporting cast seemingly phoning in their lines. I felt no involvement here and the supposedly redemptive moments of Terrence’s character fell decidedly flat.
Other questionable inclusions range from the constant presence of drug induced visions of iguanas, to a crocs-eye view from the grassy verge of a roadside crash. The fact that these shots often use a handheld camera lends a washed visual quality that looks akin to something from Jackass: it doesn’t work. Elsewhere, the New Orleans setting makes a nice change from New York or Los Angeles, but it still feels like it was shot without focusing on the strengths of the environment. The actors don’t even try to speak in the correct accent either. In fact, Cage’s accent audibly changes at certain points which proves rather distracting.
Overall, this is a film that some people will love no matter what due to the oddball performances and warped conventions of the noir cop thriller. I can definitely see this becoming a cult classic for the midnight crowd: watching the film under the influence could certainly offer it some cult mileage. However, for this reviewer, I still can’t get my head around the critical acclaim for Bad Lieutenant, never mind why Nicolas Cage overacting for two hours is supposed to be so riveting. A huge disappointment and far too arty for its own good.
4 OUT OF 10