The H-Bomb: Lt. Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) is a highly decorated cop working the mean streets of a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. After suffering a back injury, he is prescribed Vicodin and in six months time moves on to other (illegal) drugs and becomes a full blown addict, but that’s only part of McDonagh’s many nefarious activities. After a low level drug dealer and his family is found murdered, McDonagh does everything he can to function and solve the case, despite the fact that both his personal and professional lives are going on a seemingly unstoppable downward spiral.
As many of you probably already know, this is the sort-of-is but sort-of-isn’t remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 indie classic “Bad Lieutenant”, which starred Harvey Keitel as a woefully corrupt New York cop. Many critics have stated that there are no connections between the two films, but I think those critics need to pay a little more attention. Yes, the two films and their protagonists are very different. Ferrara’s film was grim, nasty, and entirely humorless, whereas Werner Herzog’s (“Rescue Dawn”, “Nosferatu: The Vampyre”) “remake” has a slightly more playful and darkly humorous tone. Cage’s McDonagh, as crooked as he is, is a considerably more sympathetic character than Keitel’s Lt., who was more or less a complete scumbag. The original “Bad Lieutenant” also had heavy(handed) religious overtones, whereas this one thankfully left out anything resembling Catholic guilt.
However, there are undeniable similarities that both films share. Both characters have chemical dependency problems. Both have gambling problems and owe money to bookies. Both often abuse the power that their badges give them, using their position to procure everything from drugs to sexual favors. Both carry gigantic revolvers that they wave around and fire off recklessly. Both are prone to hallucinations; Keitel had hallucinations of Jesus standing in front of him, while Cage has hallucinations of iguanas sitting on his coffee table. Most importantly, both films are character studies of men who gradually dig themselves deeper and deeper into holes that ultimately seem impossible to climb out of.
Which film do I prefer? Well, as great as the original is, it’s a very bleak and oppressively downbeat film that, while I do admire it, I don’t really enjoy it. The “remake,” however, as dark, raw, and appropriately sleazy as it is, also manages to be quite entertaining at the same time. So while I feel that Ferrara’s film is probably the better of the two, I personally like “Port of Call- New Orleans” more… if that makes sense.
It’s become quite fashionable to rag on Nicolas Cage lately, as many of his more recent choices in projects has been unfortunate, to say the least (“Wicker Man“ remake, anyone?). But he is a damn fine actor and when given quality material, he is more than capable of delivering an impressive performance. Such is the case here. He really puts his back into this role and gives us a character who is fully rounded and compelling. Everything about his Bad Lt., from his voice, to his gestures, his postures, and his horrible haircut, really suggests a man who was perhaps once good and honest, but who has gone horribly astray over the years, and now has to struggle every waking second to keep his shit together.
As we’ve seen in “Leaving Las Vegas”, Cage is very adept at portraying hopelessly self-destructive characters, and after years of slumming in Le Cinema de Shit, it’s a treat to see him finally firing on all cylinders again. The scene where he employs some “advanced interrogation techniques” against an elderly woman on a respirator is fucking classic!
The supporting cast is made up of well known character actors, including Brad Dourif, Fairuza Balk, Tom Bower, Michael Shannon, Irma P. Hall, and Jennifer Coolidge. They all add color and flavor to the picture, and every one of them leaves an impression, despite that many of them only have a scene or two. Alvin “Xibit” Joiner is both slimy and menacing as the local drug kingpin who becomes the number one suspect in McDonagh’s murder investigation. Eva Mendes, who plays McDonagh’s hooker girlfriend with a nose candy habit herself, provides solid support for Cage and allows him to show a more sympathetic side to his character. Val Kilmer is also good as a fellow cop who is perhaps as dirty as McDonagh, but his role is sadly underwritten. I really think they could’ve used him more than they did.
As great as the supporting players are, though, this is entirely Cage’s show, and the only other element that is just as crucial to this film’s success as Cage‘s performance, is the director, Werner Herzog. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this could have ended up being just another police drama, but Herzog, bringing with him his attention to detail, his oddball sensibilities, and his quirky sense of humor, makes it something entirely different. He gives us a vivid look at a devastated New Orleans that is both real and surreal at the same time. Whether he’s showing us the rundown slums, or a snake swimming around a flooded jail cell, or a road killed alligator in the middle of the road, he gives us a real feel for the place. I also appreciate the fact that, despite the setting, there isn’t one phony Cajun accent to be heard. Thank you, Mr. Herzog, for not having the actors go down that road.
Despite the fact that this movie is called “Bad Lieutenant” and shares some thematic similarities with the earlier film, this really is a movie that stands on its own with its own style and mood. It’s a unique, bizarre film that alternates between being violently ugly and perversely funny. Ultimately, I can’t guarantee you’ll like it, but I do recommend you take a chance on it.