Friday, April 16, 2010

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" Review

"The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans." Wow. If you think the title is unorthodox, just wait until you watch the film.

Terence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) is a detective in post-Katrina New Orleans. After a cripplingly painful back injury, an addiction to pain killers tips the already shady McDonagh over the precipice of debauchery. Soon he is waist deep in addiction and blackmail, simultaneously struggling to keep a handle on his sanity and solve the brutal murder of a Senegalese family. As the investigation continues, McDonagh's dependence escalates, and the story veers further and further from the expected.

German New-Waver Werner Herzog is at the helm, and although the subject matter seems a bit outside his usual territory, he imbues the film with all art-house weirdness fans have come to expect.

The film plays dress-up in the clothes of a sleazy detective-on-the-edge story, but at its heart, Bad Lieutenant is about debasement and chaos eating at the heart of the Big Easy, and at the heart of the titular detective.

I make it a general rule to avoid Nicholas Cage like the plague. However, unhinged detective Terence McDonagh is the perfect outlet for Cage's unabashed insanity. Cage's bug-eyed, hunch-backed absurdity seems to have a finally found a home in Herzog's New Orleans.

With a poorly cut suit and a .357 magnum tucked behind his belt, McDonagh is a protagonist Herzog can be proud of, channeling the driven madness of Herzog's long-time go-to lead, Klaus Kinski. It's undeniably fascinating to watch Cage's flailing descent into his madness, and despite the apparent amorality of many of his actions, McDonogh somehow manages to remain strangely sympathetic.

Solid performances are turned in by the supporting cast, which includes Eva Mendes and the lovably dumpy Val Kilmer.

While all the features are in place, "Bad Lieutenant" is far from Herzog's best. The story is scattered, and Herzog's attempts at visual poetry seem all too often contrived. The breakdancing spirit of a dying criminal is certainly a striking image, but in the context of the work it comes off as sloppy and unusually self-indulgent. It's unclear whether Herzog has become deluded by his own mythic reputation, or he's simply struggling to find his voice in more mainstream work.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is seedy and convoluted, but it boasts some great performances and some mesmerizing Herzogian strangeness. Herzog aficionados and character buffs will find a lot to think about, but casual viewers should beware: this port of call is not for the faint of heart.

Grade C+

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