Movie review: Ann Hornaday on Werner Herzog's 'Bad Lieutenant,' starring Nicolas Cage

BIG EASY "LIEUTENANT": For Xzibit and Nicolas Cage in Werner Herzog's film, defining the law is a shifting target.
BIG EASY "LIEUTENANT": For Xzibit and Nicolas Cage in Werner Herzog's film, defining the law is a shifting target. (Lena Herzog/first Look Studios Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

There's a deranged grandeur to Nicolas Cage's performance in "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," in which he plays a police officer who plunges into drug addiction after a heroic on-the-job accident. Cage throws himself into a role of a man not so much battling as fervidly dancing with his demons, allowing him to indulge in his most manic, unhinged mannerisms. Like a jumpy, coke-fueled Pied Piper, Cage takes viewers to the very precipice of depraved self-abasement, while preserving just enough self-conscious humor to keep from tumbling in.

In a season featuring an exceptional number of films about characters going rogue -- from "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Antichrist" to the upcoming movies "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "The Road" -- "Bad Lieutenant" might be the most true to its own anarchic, subversive impulses. Director Werner Herzog, a filmmaker never known for half measures, has taken the basic character, plot points and leitmotifs from Abel Ferrara's 1992 "Bad Lieutenant," and given them more heat, humor and stylized action.

His most provocative decision -- aside from, at least symbolically, resurrecting a character created and killed off by Ferrara and actor Harvey Keitel in the original film -- was to move the story from New York to post-Katrina New Orleans. That turns out to have been a perceptive and aesthetically fruitful move, giving Herzog exactly the right atmosphere to explore his cardinal themes of man's inhumanity to man and the indiscriminate brutality of nature, in a city stripped to its swampy, morally murky essence.

Moonlight and magnolias are thereby banished in Herzog's film, which instead presents a city still scarred and reeling from the deluge, a city not of beignets and Sazeracs but of featureless casinos, banal sports bars and the pervasive stench of rot from within. The New Orleans where Cage's Lt. Terence McDonagh investigates a homicide (scooping up generous helpings of controlled substances along the way) is a Wild West frontier of generalized squalor, where everyone is either jacked up or numbed out, including Terence's hooker girlfriend, played by the sensational Eva Mendes in a turn that recalls Ava Gardner in her earthy sexuality and innate warmth.

With a hitched-up shoulder as pronounced as his jones for anything he can snort or smoke, Cage begins to resemble a dope-sick Richard III as the vortex of his addictions threatens to swallow him whole. For admirers who still miss the Cage who delivered the searing, Oscar-winning performance in the 1995 movie "Leaving Las Vegas," and who have despaired of his subsequent choices (ranging from the "National Treasure" franchise to driving a motorcycle with his hair on fire in "Ghost Rider"), this will represent a return to form for an actor who at his best represents the ferocity and uncompromising commitment of great acting.

Indeed, it's a measure of Cage's fearlessness and charisma that, even at his most dissipated, Terence holds the viewers' sympathy, and maybe even their bent admiration. This is because "Bad Lieutenant" (written by William Finkelstein) is shot through with humor black as a Louisiana bayou, an obliquely wicked comic sensibility that was largely missing from the first movie.

There are undeniable, if perverse, laughs to be found in Terence's recapitulation of the all-American family, when at one point he drives around with cracked approximations of the classic wife, kid and dog. The same can be said for a scene in which Terence talks real estate with a local drug kingpin (hip-hop artist and MTV host Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner) while the criminal's henchmen casually dump a dead body into a canal in the background.

The sick kicks of "Bad Lieutenant" certainly aren't for everybody. Nor are Herzog's periodic forays into thickly troweled symbolism, such as shooting scenes with an alligator or two unblinking iguanas in the foreground, as if to underline, italicize and boldface the primal urges that tempt his protagonist. (This is, after all, the director who intoned with Teutonic despair in his documentary "Grizzly Man" that when he looked in the face of a grizzly bear "I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.")

Admittedly, there's no excuse for a filmmaker of Herzog's experience to allow as many visible boom microphones as there are here. Still, he has a sensualist's eye for down and dirty pleasures, which are to be had in abundance in this improbably entertaining portrait of compulsion at its most reptilian. For filmgoers whose tastes run to pulp genre frissons, auteurist brio and Nicolas Cage at his most luridly over-the-top, "Bad Lieutenant" scores a kind of freaky-deaky home run.


Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

(121 minutes, at E Street, Bethesda Row and Shirlington) is rated R for drug use, pervasive profanity, some violence and sexuality.

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