Review: Cage shines as a crooked cop in resetting of ‘Bad Lieutenant’
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
In “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans,” the rogue cop Terence McDonagh, played by Nicolas Cage, busts down doors of drug dealers, sneaks up on old ladies, ambushes teenagers who are potential witnesses, and shakes down club-goers unfortunate enough to be in McDonagh’s vicinity carrying McDonagh’s drug of choice (crack, though heroin or powder cocaine will do) when the lieutenant gets a craving.
The notable thing is that hardly any of these victims ever seem surprised by these intrusions. They almost seem to be expecting a visit from a truly bad cop, and they know the drill – how much to give McDonagh, how much to withhold, what bargaining chips they hold, how far they can go with a member of New Orleans’ finest.
The film – a resetting of 1992’s “Bad Lieutenant,” starring Harvey Keitel as a New York police detective – takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans. Director Werner Herzog doesn’t seem overly concerned with depicting the city as a fallen place, devastated by god’s storm and man’s failures. Apart from one Katrina-related scene, there’s little sense that the story takes place post-anything. The camera doesn’t pan across neighborhoods of waterlogged homes; there’s not a FEMA trailer in sight.
No, the New Orleans of “Bad Lieutenant” is a cesspool that has been festering well before August 2005. There is a deeper history here of corruption, narcotics, prostitution, guns and gambling. This is a deeply ingrained way of life.
So if Herzog, a German-born filmmaker, isn’t interested in the effects of Katrina, why remake “Bad Lieutenant?” Well, probably for the best reasons possible – that he saw the material as something he could make his own, that he could do something different than he had done before.
On the surface, Terence McDonagh is much like the title character in the original (known there only as “The Lieutenant”) – a drug-using, gun-toting, prostitution-dating, witness-beating, gambling emblem of the abuse of power, becoming increasingly unglued as he investigates a disturbing case. But this version, of the character and the film, doesn’t have the feel of the original. Instead, it feels original.
Cage’s performance is the centerpiece, no doubt, and it is a good one. Cage, whose career is one of the most interesting and unpredictable of any actor ever, uses all that background to create a most complex character. In his hands, McDonagh is terrifying and funny, loony and logical.
How do you reconcile the guy who jumps into a pit of storm water (ruining his $55 underwear in the process) to save a prisoner with the guy who hands over his girlfriend (Eva Mendes) to a pair of violent mobsters as if it were a business transaction? You can’t – and maybe that’s the fun here.
It’s vastly entertaining in this case to watch a character, fueled by a toxic mix of authority, drugs, psychosis and amorality – not to mention excellent police-work instincts – who might do anything.
But it is not only Cage’s movie. It is also Herzog’s. His last film was the stellar Antarctic documentary “Encounters at the End of the World.” “Bad Lieutenant” could well have shared that title, and the director is on oddly similar ground as he was there – exploring the corners of a strange, hostile world to unsurface the distinct psychology of the place. And he deftly handles the tough job of making an irremediably loathsome character a watchable one.
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Oral family history provides context that textbooks lack. Tying personal experience to collective events renders them relevant. Most of us have family oral history going back only a few generations, but that spans more history than you might think.