Saturday, December 12, 2009

Review: "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans"

There's something refreshingly carefree about Werner Herzog's completely gonzo Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. This is a police thriller like no other, a completely unhinged, balls to the wall trip down the rabbit hole of cocaine, corruption, and iguanas.

Yes, iguanas. Or at least the iguanas inside Lieutenant Terence McDonagh's drug addled mind. McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) is a decorated New Orleans detective, injured in the line of duty while rescuing a prisoner left behind in the rising flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. Now addicted to Vicodin and increasingly powerful drugs like cocaine to ease his pain, McDonagh becomes increasingly wreckless. When he is faced with a major murder case involving organized crime, McDonagh's personal and professional life begin to intersect, including his relationship with a beautiful prostitute (Eva Mendes), his fragile relationship with his father (Tom Bower) and stepmother (Jennifer Coolidge), his massive gambling debts to a harried bar owner (Brad Dourif), and his dependence on cocaine smuggled out of the police store room.

But when that supply gets cut off, McDonagh is faced with finding new, increasingly dangerous ways of feeding his addiction, which brings him closer and closer to the killer, and more precariously, closer to the brink of madness. The great irony is, that the very qualities that make him a bad lieutenant, may just make him the best lieutenant there is.

In other words, Bad Lieutenant takes a cavalier, devil may care attitude toward police ethics, throws good sense right out the window, and just goes crazy. Herzog is obviously having a blast, as is his star, Cage, who turns in a blistering, fearless performance that is his best in years. The whole film is feverishly intense, but it's also ridiculously funny. You can't take any of this seriously, and Herzog knows it. This is his and Cage's show, and we're just along for the ride. It is literally a cracked out experience, emulating how its protagonist must feel at any given moment. The bizarre reptillian interludes, which could have been disastrously misguided, instead are brilliantly insane directorial flourishes.

Not only that, Herzog crafts an entire film around a colossaly unlikable character, who is irredeemably corrupt and reprehensible, and makes him into a strange sort of hero. We're rooting for him every step of the way. The whole affair is just too crazy not to get caught up in. Real world rules do not apply here. With Cage doing some of the finest work of his career in front of the camera, and Herzog laughing maniacally behind it, Bad Lieutenant becomes something of a B-movie wonder, a potboiler procedural on an acid trip.

There really isn't anything else out there quite like it. It's a work of mad genius, a deliriously entertaining journey into the darkness of the human soul that ends up, surprisingly, being one of the most hugely enjoyable films of the year.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS; Directed by Werner Herzog; Stars Nicholas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Jennifer Coolidge, Fairuza Balk, Brad Dourif, Michael Shannon; Rated R for drug use and language throughout, some violence and sexuality.

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