Plenty, this writer included, are pretty hard on Nicolas Cage. He’s one of those actors whose films I eventually had to avoid because of my visceral antipathy to the very idea of him and his supposed talent. Like Cruise or Travolta, Cage is more of a reactor than an actor — an ape who’s mastered the art of behaving spontaneously for the camera, but who possesses one note on a single continuum, which either mumbles or shouts depending on the role. So when Werner Herzog, one of my favorite working directors, cast Cage in a new film, I died a little inside, knowing I’d be compelled to cringe my way through it. I should have trusted Herzog. He may not be putting out as many masterpieces as he once did (2004’s The White Diamond seemed, until now, his best recent work), but Los Angeles living hasn’t sucked away his essence after all, and he’s retained those lunatic-whisperer faculties which helped him wrangle Klaus Kinski and Bruno S. He simply knows how to cast peculiar men in outlandish parts. That’s not to say Cage delivers a ingenious performance — he doesn’t stretch his abilities in the least, ad-libbing or not — but damned if he doesn’t fit beautifully into the whole of Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Not since the Coens exalted his single note in Raising Arizona has Cage been so indispensable to a role or so enjoyable to watch.
Much credit goes to Herzog’s abiding sympathy for the absurd, which deepens into the grotesque in his (not a) re-imagining of Abel Ferrara’s notorious 1992 film (or, more precisely, of its corrupt anti-hero cop). The grotesque is the principal feature in Herzog’s design, and it’s embodied in his leading man’s posture. Cage works, here, because he’s always been a grotesquerie on screen, self-consciously awkward in body and role, sputtering his lines, screwing up his jolie-laide features, weirded out by his own weird hair. Tortured by chronic back pain, Cage’s Lt. Terence McDonagh is a looming Quasimodo who stands askew — broad shoulders hitched into a hill of agony — and who’s frequently shot from angles that emphasize his fucked-up spine. We watch several scenes from behind McDonagh’s seized left shoulder; his back is practically another character, justifying the lead’s orgy of painkillers and cocaine. Bad Lieutenant functions within a generic storyline — the investigation of a gangland execution and the protection of its only witness — but it’s really about McDonagh’s various types of pain, and the pain he transmits to other people who get in his way.
But Cage isn’t the movie’s only grotesque prop. It’s infested with reptiles and aquatic creatures: snakes, alligators, iguanas, sharks, a dying angelfish in a glass. By the time a happy white Labrador retriever appears, the odder fauna has been normalized and the most pedestrian animal on screen — the family dog on a leash — is placed in such absurd situations that the everyday is turned on its ear and can’t comfort the audience with familiarity. Despite Herzog’s dyspeptic remark about misdirecting film scholars with pointless imagery in his latest film, his animal motif should be taken seriously, and not just because of his symbolic track record. Establishing shots count, and Bad Lieutenant opens on a snake swimming through a flooded jail in post-Katrina New Orleans. The snake leads our eye to an inmate trapped in his cell, up to his neck in rising water when McDonagh and his partner (Val Kilmer) discover him. After glibly trading bets on how long it’ll take the inmate (Nick Gomez) to drown, McDonagh jumps into the soup to rescue him, injuring his back which, six months down the line, will demand all those drugs that keep McDonagh physically upright but morally bent. We were given hints, pre-injury and pre-promotion, that McDonagh wasn’t a model cop, but it’s fair to say that his addiction to drugs was aggravated by his pain, which in turn aggravates his vice. He spends the film shaking citizens down for drugs that he’ll use himself, getting in hock with his bookie (Brad Dourif, another go-to grotesque), ingesting cocaine in myriad forms, casing his precinct’s property room for pills, and abusing old women and idle shop clerks (Larry David would blush).
And then there’s boggy New Orleans, used by filmmakers the same way many have used Venice as a backdrop to moral and civic decay. Post-Katrina NOLA is a site that especially demands screen time. A locus of actual bureaucratic neglect, the place comes with a built-in narrative that syncs with Herzog’s tale of lousy authority and mistreated citizenry. Everything about the movie is richer for its environment, and though some have complained that Herzog doesn’t pan over the devastation enough, the suggestion of rot remains strong. The background of derelict houses is ever-present even though many scenes take place within claustrophobically framed interiors reminiscent of Antonioni’s constricting architecture in Blowup. Those interiors make us edgy because they’re meant to give us a sense of McDonagh’s agitation, while the water-logged exteriors paint a picture of his vice. The complementary settings prove Herzog’s still at the top of his game as both storyteller and technician.
He’s also up to his usual casting tricks, selecting a combination of solid and not-so-solid actors. The difference here is that pretty much every face onscreen is that of a working actor rather than those of non-professionals, which Herzog often uses. Some of the bit players (like the Dudley Do-Right cop who won’t scrub a traffic violation) stink up the screen, and Jennifer Coolidge, as McDonagh’s Southern Gothic stepmom, struggles in her first scene before settling into a fine enough performance — Herzog’s preference for single takes overwhelms some actors while helping others thrive. The distressed Senegalese immigrants who chase justice for a murdered family are riveting, as are various henchmen who circle the kingpins. Elsewhere, the distinctive Fairuza Balk is almost unrecognizable as the hot cop who beds McDonagh, and nothing can be taken away from Kilmer, Dourif, and Eva Mendes (who plays McDonagh’s call-girl lover). Mendes has been branded a creampuff, but her Frankie should silence detractors. Here, she’s three-dimensional, her warmth almost tactile, and her languid portrayal of addiction-pain complements Cage’s chewier rendering. Their scenes together are the ones that humanize — and complicate — McDonagh’s character, and they wisely reduce Frankie’s profession to something incidental. They are lovers first when they’re on screen together, feeding each other drugs with a salutary tenderness as funny as it is convincing. Xzibet, as Big Fate, animates the dog-eared role of drug lord — his character may be a cliché, but he works through the kaleidoscope crazy with just enough straight-man skill to make one of the film’s most outrageous scenes even better. The fact that Herzog imposes the same Sonny Terry recording on this scene that he made famous in Stroszek suggests he’s either starting to lose his mind — for real this time — or his balls are made of stuff much harder than auteur brass.(And while it would be fun to describe the scene in question, its unexpectedness is partly what makes it so glorious, along with another over-the-top scene involving a breathing-tube and inventive cruelty. It would be a shame to spoil these sequences for readers.)
What starts out feeling like a (disappointingly) conventional movie twists out of our grasp about ten minutes in, when McDonagh corners a couple in a parking lot and seizes their recreational drugs. We know immediately that he isn’t in it for the arrest or even altogether for the dust and pills. McDonagh is too manic and too aroused by his power, which is transformed into an absurd thing when the woman starts to fondle him. Cage’s character, who relies on a bar called The Gator’s Retreat to corral his marks, becomes appropriately reptilian in these scenes — Herzog loves his puns. He also loves an ironic structure, winding down Bad Lieutenant with his lens trained on the same inmate rescued by McDonagh in the film’s earliest scenes. The water’s contained in a shark tank this time, but McDonagh’s still laughing, still ambivalently bound to the lucky crack pipe that keeps earning him medals and promotions. Cage’s lieutenant is unforgettable — grotesque in all the right moments and in all the right ways — and so, most likely, is the film. And we don’t have just Cage’s work or Herzog’s zaniness to thank for this; even the quick, quiet images — hookers illuminated by a passing spotlight, or the lustrous gel-work that tints a bar scene — aren’t likely to fade from the memory any time soon.