Monday, December 21, 2009

A cop who's bad to the bone

Tracy and Hepburn they're not. Cage and Mendes share a moment in Werner Herzog's very crazy Bad Lieutenant.

Despite its title, Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is only a distant cousin to Abel Ferrara's 1992 movie -- also called Bad Lieutenant. Ferrara's movie starred Harvey Keitel as the world's most depraved detective. The new version stars Nicolas Cage as an equally corrupted cop, but one who doesn't seem to have time to plumb any Dostoevskian depths.

I'd just about given up on Cage, tagging the former Oscar-winner as an actor who appears mostly in the kind of big-ticket movies that have words such as "National Treasure" in the title. But Cage gives his chops a real workout in Bad Lieutenant.

For his part, Herzog -- whose career includes both features (Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo) and documentaries (Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World) -- comes closer to mixing his sensibilities with a straightforward story than he did in 2006's exciting but more conventional Rescue Dawn.

Part genre exercise and part goof, Bad Lieutenant revolves around Cage's performance, which is every bit as insane as his character. As a homicide detective with back problems, Cage's McDonagh snorts cocaine, has a prostitute for a girlfriend, steals drugs from people he threatens with arrest, fraternizes with murderers and smokes a fair amount of pot.

With his shoulders tilted at a sea-saw angle and his face looking as if it's about to implode, Cage turns himself into a reptile with a badge, something that has crawled out of New Orleans' post-Katrina waters and can't shake off all the muck. Assigned to investigate the execution-style murder of a family of five, McDonagh sinks deeper and deeper into reprobate ways. Occasionally, he hallucinates, imagining that he sees a couple of iguanas on a table, for example (Granted, it's a small field, but Herzog includes the best shot of iguanas with musical accompaniment ever filmed.)

As is the case with any self-respecting neo-noir, plenty of minor characters round out the cast. Eva Mendes plays a hooker who McDonagh keeps supplied with drugs. There are also bookies, gangsters and every other imaginable form of human slime.

Perhaps because he couldn't quite decide whether to be serious or grimly funny, Herzog walks the fine line between both extremes. He also makes sure to include scenes that etch themselves into noir memory: McDonagh depriving an elderly woman of her oxygen exemplifies the movie's mean-spirited lunacy. As Cage unleashes a sneering rage that's almost cartoonish, the scene becomes an exercise in shock and macabre humor.

Usually, I hate a movie with several endings, which is the case with Bad Lieutenant. Herzog can't seem to let go of this character, and, by the end, I understood why. McDonagh allows Herzog to make a movie that feels as if it has been composed of jazz-like improvisations, riffs so harsh they turn into a kind of warped comedy, something like the rude, low humor of a honking saxophone.

In Denver, Bad Lieutenant wasn't screened in advance for critics, so I had to catch up with it over the weekend. It's a seriously twisted movie, which -- at least in this case -- is a good thing. In New Orleans, Herzog and Cage seem to have pushed each other toward a wild, dangerous and often-funny collaboration. They've made a movie that lives proudly on the fringe.

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