By Noah Redfield, Staff Writer
Conventional wisdom holds that Nicolas Cage is a talentless actor who got lucky once or twice but more often than not is rubbish. This isn't strictly true although a recent wave of turkeys like "Knowing" and the laughable remake of "The Wicker Man" paint a different picture. The fact that he gives his best performance in seven years is a tribute to the legendary Werner Herzog, director of "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans."
Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a cop who relishes in the destructive lifestyle that he leads. He is a drug addict and a gambling addict. He is romantically involved with a prostitute (Eva Mendes), also an addict. While investigating a homicide, he cuts off the oxygen tank of an elderly woman in search of a lead. He steals crack from a young couple and forces the girl to have sex with him while the guy watches. All in a day's work for McDonagh.
Whether or not this is a remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 masterpiece, is open to interpretation. One can certainly find plenty of parallels in the narrative to make the claim, but the films differ drastically in a thematic context. While Ferrara's film is all about the brutal road one must take to receive redemption in the Catholic sense of the word, Herzog's film – in his own words – is all about the bliss of evil. Cage's cop has no sense of guilt and has no interest in redeeming himself. I'd love to see Cage team up with Herzog again. He has found in Herzog a director who understands how his talent manifests itself in odd line-readings and facial ticks, and is able to conduct that energy into something extraordinary. This is what "The Wicker Man" would've been like had it not taken itself so seriously. It's a film that knows how bonkers it is and won't apologize for it.
Herzog's vision of the world, as he explained in his documentary "Grizzly Man," consists entirely of "chaos, hostility, and murder." All his films reflect this belief by combining seemingly ordinary elements together to create bizarre and unsettling images, and this easily applies to his depiction of post-Katrina New Orleans. Only he would devise a motif where McDonagh hallucinates iguanas during lurid crime scenes and pull it off, or execute a slow-motion gunfight that plays out to a harmonica freak-out on the soundtrack. It's this unbridled madness played without irony that makes a Herzog film so chilling.
If anything, "Bad Lieutenant" isn't deranged enough. Its biggest problem is in Mark Isham's overly-quirky score, which keeps telling the audience how to feel. I'd rather have more unhinged blues music or the kind of ambient soundscapes that always used to come with Herzog's films. But considering nobody is making films as gleefully bonkers as this one anymore, I'll take it. See "Bad Lieutenant," and then see the original masterpiece. They're two very different works of art but both are absolutely brilliant in their own way.