The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

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Posted November 19, 2009 in Film

In Werner Herzog’s gonzo riot, Nicolas Cage stars as a manic Louisiana cop protecting—and wreaking havoc on—the last dregs of order Hurricane Katrina didn’t wash away. It’s a perfect setting and a perfect star. The sky is gray, the buildings caked in dirt and through the filth Cage stalks his beat like a starving jackal. Bad Lieutenant is the first flick in recent memory to shape all of Cage’s contradictions into a character: shrewd, dumb, lazy, reckless, alert and exhausted—a man whose own body is at war with itself, his hangdog face clashing with his sharp, predatory eyes. Cage leaps into the role, but is smart enough to show that Lt. Terrence McDonagh is gaudier than life; he wears him like a Mardi Gras mask. And if McDonagh has good motives, he’s even hidden them from himself. Ostensibly, Herzog’s flick is about a wounded cop battling a drug addiction and a turf war that’s gotten a family of immigrants killed. But whenever writer William M. Finkelstein’s plot starts heading in a familiar direction, say with the unspoken badge rivalry between Cage and Val Kilmer, or the need to protect a young boy who is the murder’s only witness, the ground gives way under us and Herzog decides that what we really need to do is stare at a dead alligator on a freeway. (And then pull back to show that gator being mourned by its gator friend.) By the film’s final act, Cage has gone inarticulate with nervous, unspent energy, and Herzog’s attempt at a happy ending is truly perverse. Even before Cage is stalked by iguanas, this flick feels like a perfect, perfect prank. 

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