Full disclosure: I love Werner Herzog. The guy is a mad genius, who's almost as legendary for the way he makes movies as for the movies he makes. Never one to shy away from a challenge he's trekked through dangerous jungles, swum under Antarctic ice, been shot, suffered through a contentious but creatively fruitful relationship with Klaus Kinski (chronicled in his own documentary My Best Fiend), all of which have contributed to a varied and unique filmography that spans more than 40 years.
Having long admired that body of work I, of course, looked forward to his latest, ungainly titled film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans. While it doesn't rise to the delirious heights of his more challenging early work, Bad Lieutenant proves Herzog has lost none of his taste for nihilistically charting the inner workings of characters hurtling toward the edge of the abyss--though he has softened a bit in his old age.
Nicolas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop who, during the worst of the Katrina disaster, injures himself while rescuing a prisoner left behind in a flooding jail cell. His heroism earns him a promotion, but his injury saddles him with an ever-growing addiction to a wide variety of drugs.
Locked into a co-dependent relationship with a beautiful prostitute (Eva Mendes) and playing on both sides of the law in order to keep them in a steady supply of narcotics, McDonagh's increasingly criminal machinations draw him inexorably closer to Big Fate (Xzibit), a major drug dealer and the prime suspect in a multiple murder case McDonagh's investigating.
Herzog has crafted something different here that I can't say I've seen from him before. At its heart Bad Lieutenant is a '70s styled police procedural--that has been very loosely adapted from the 1992 Abel Ferrara film of the same name--and in Herzog's hands the gritty story crackles along at a brisk pace that is not without his idiosyncratic flourishes.
His dark humor lurks underneath the straightforward narrative penned by television vet William Finkelstein and is reflected in Cage's near manic performance as McDonagh. It's definitely satisfying to see Herzog tackling a film this genre-oriented, though he's not asking the bigger philosophical questions that mark his earlier work. He is, however, having a lot of fun.
That's where Cage comes in. As Terence McDonagh, Cage turns in his best performance since 2002's Adaptation. He's alive, frenetic, funny and studied all at once. This is the Nick Cage who ate a cockroach in Vampire's Kiss, and I couldn't take my eyes off him; although, he lacks the genuine insanity of Herzog's best accomplice, Klaus Kinski. Hardly a fair criticism, most everyone does. Supporting turns from Eva Mendes, Brad Dourif as McDonagh's good-hearted bookie, and Val Kilmer as a fellow cop, ably fill out the main cast.
While not really rising to the level of Herzog's best work, which was never this main stream, Bad Lieutenant is still as good a place to start as any in exploring the life's work of one of cinema's most unique visionaries.
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