Thursday, May 06, 2010

Culture Shock 05.06.10: Nicolas Cage flirts with insanity in New Orleans

Directing "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans" is not the greatest challenge of Werner Herzog's film-making career. He did not, after all, have to drag a steamboat over a mountain. He just had to direct Nicolas Cage.

Since winning his Oscar, Cage has turned in a number of lackluster performances. The less said of "Ghost Rider," the better. But in New Orleans police Lt. Terence McDonagh — the titular bad lieutenant — Cage has found a role that suits his eccentricities.

Perhaps that is what drew Herzog to make a film that, at first glance, doesn't seem like a Herzog film. The title suggests either a remake of Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant," which starred Harvey Keitel, or a sequel. But it is neither.

Herzog has long gravitated toward obsessed or deranged characters, finding more truth in them than in mundane reality. How else could he have survived his long partnership with Klaus Kinski, which he documented in the film "My Best Fiend"? Now, with Cage, Herzog has formed a new partnership. But the insanity remains in front of the camera. This time, there are no urban legends of the uncompromising German director threatening his star with a gun.

Lt. McDonagh, however, threatens many people: young couples, drug dealers, elderly women tethered to oxygen tanks. Relentless insanity bubbles beneath his surface, rising violently only to recede again like the ocean tide.

New Orleans, through Herzog's lens, is similarly relentless, a near barren post-Katrina wasteland. We see the French Quarter from its edges, but we see the Lower 9th Ward in full view.

Cage's McDonagh is strangely mesmerizing, hunched over like Richard III and fueled by Vicodin and cocaine. Ironically, the bad lieutenant's bad habit is the result of a good deed. He injures his back while saving a jail inmate from drowning during Hurricane Katrina. Afterward, he must pop pills and snort lines merely to function.

"Bad Lieutenant," however, is not a brief against drug abuse, although it portrays it as anything but glamorous. McDonagh is a high-functioning addict. He juggles gambling debts, a high-class prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), the mob, a drug lord (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner) and a murder investigation involving a slain family. All, however, threaten to fall, and in so doing alert his fellow officers to his illegal doings.

Was McDonagh a bad cop before his injury and substance abuse? We do not know. Is he truly a bad cop afterward? By all legal and moral standards, yes. Yet he is still more ethical than his partner, played by Val Kilmer.

Herzog does not offer easy answers. What, after all, is the significance of the alligator and the iguanas who, shot on a shaky video camera by Herzog himself, appear as mute spectators to the proceedings? Are they merely McDonagh's hallucinations? Or do they hold greater significance?

And what are we to make of the dead man's soul, which McDonagh sees still dancing even after its corporeal home has been shot full of holes? Is it just another sign of his insanity?

In the end, perhaps there are no answers, merely a punch line, but a punch line well worth the telling. For Herzog and Cage, all is a dark comedy, and the joke is on humanity.

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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