There’s something admirable in the way Nicolas Cage just goes balls-to-the-wall insane in every single one of his roles today (his vocal work in “Astro Boy” possibly being the lone exception). Cage hasn’t let critical derision or audience apathy affect his acting decisions, even though those decisions led him to star in “Knowing.”

“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

At the Michigan
First Look

Clearly, the inimitable Werner Herzog, director of such man-on-the-brink films as “Fitzcarraldo” and “Grizzly Man,” saw something he admired in Cage’s ability to bring the crazy to mainstream cinema. And this must have been what led him to cast Cage in his in-name-only remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 anti-establishment cop movie “Bad Lieutenant.”

There’s a nifty sleight-of-hand this film pulls before our very eyes: With its sweeping shots of a ravaged, post-Katrina New Orleans and a seemingly hard-boiled murder mystery, this new “Bad Lieutenant” walks and talks like a mainstream police drama. But by the time Cage’s Terence McDonagh is hallucinating iguanas and cutting off an old lady’s oxygen supply, you’ll know the film is anything but mainstream. This stuff makes “The Departed” look like “Kindergarten Cop.”

Herzog and screenwriter William Finkelstein (TV’s “NYPD Blue”) are careful to include only as much plot as is necessary to keep adding fuel to Cage’s lunacy. The opening scene finds McDonagh uncharacteristically risking his life to save a drowning victim. He spends the rest of the film paying for this random act of kindness with insufferable back pain that gives him an addiction to Vicodin. After his promotion to lieutenant, McDonagh takes on an investigation into the murders of five Senegalese refugees and secures drugs from perps on the side to both pay off his gambling debts and share with his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes, “The Spirit”).

This isn’t one of those movies in which we’re helplessly watching a straight-and-narrow guy spin his life out of control as he succumbs to the evils of addiction. Herzog is too dismissive of human nature to make a film about a downward spiral; to him, everyone is already at the bottom, spiraling in place. Neither he nor Cage is interested in creating a drug addict the audience will feel sorry for. So we see McDonagh ingest the highest-grade cocaine, let off crack-possessing girls on the street in exchange for sexual favors and light up a blunt in front of a prime suspect (but not without offering him a hit, of course).

There’s nothing redeeming in McDonagh except the unrestrained glee he takes from getting away with it all. And we’re laughing right along with him. Here, at last, is a worthy successor to “Scarface,” and when McDonagh commands a stooge to keep riddling a dead drug lord with bullets because “his soul still dances,” it’s an instantly iconic scene that begs to be quoted à la “Say hello to my little friend!”

But for such a dark comedy of excess, it’s surprising that the film ends with something approaching restraint. The closing shots are more optimistic about the futures of McDonagh and the sins of humanity than a film directed by Herzog has any right to be. Is this — pardon the pun — a cop-out? A result of pressure from the studio? An admission by Herzog that he can’t even maintain interest long enough to properly finish his vision? Whatever it is, the ending pulls off another muddling sleight-of-hand on the viewer.

One thing’s for sure: Now that Cage has restored some of his reputation by getting a better director to film his bug-eyed antics, he’s free to keep up his reign of insanity through another batch of bad movies. That is, once he’s settled all of his recent lawsuits. Hey Cage, a birdie says there’s money in New Orleans real estate.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.