The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans

A film directed by Werner Herzog in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with Nicolas Cage as a corrupt detective. I was expecting an outbreak of madness on the level of Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo. The most notable thing was Nicolas Cage’s performance. Indeed, this is possibly Herzog’s most conventional film ever. No bad thing because Nicolas Cage shines. However, I would have liked more singing Iguanas.

An image from Bad Lieutenant

Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), saves a felon from a flooded jail getting a promotion to Lieutenant and a back injury in the process. Facing permanent back-pain he is given painkillers but soon indulges in harder stuff. Whilst investigating the murder/execution of an immigrant family orchestrated by local king-pin Big Fate (Xzibit), he finds family pressure, various addictions and problems with his girlfriend Frankie Donnenfield (Eva Mendes), adding to the stress of a case that he may see as his redemption for his increasingly uncontrollable behaviour.

This is a noir, evil is in the air, corruption, breaching moral boundaries. Noir is the genre that comes out of recession so it’s high time for a resurgence. The police are bad, the town is decaying, life is hard and corruption is rife.  

Everybody in the movie is mannered – criminals, cops and civilians – and they all rub along, giving and taking and communicating with a degree of articulacy that is highly amusing.

The New Orleans setting felt under-used, despite the cool amphibians (pure yet finite Herzog). Indeed, I missed the weird view he’d give of a city recently flooded. The only thing distinctively New Orleans is the soundtrack, a gorgeous melange of blues.

Without the Werner weirdness what plays out are the central performances. Nicolas Cage is the shadow in the corner, gun jammed in his belt, swinging between cocaine invincibility to heroine meanderings.

This, for me, is Cage’s best performance recently, mixing light with dark, something he specialises in. Even when increasingly unhinged, vacillating between morality and amorality, he is trying to be a good cop and glimmers of the effective detective shine through. 

It’s Cage’s human qualities that pulled me in. This isn’t intense Klaus Kinski who seemed genuinely crazy. I found him likeable even when threatening civilians, which marks me out as nuts or swayed by a great performance. I opt for the latter.

 The stand-out scenes all have Cage trying to balance high stakes, intense situations and his burgeoning drug-fuelled insanity. I even felt that he and Eva Mendes made a really endearing couple, even when high.

An image of Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes from the film The Bad Lieutenant

Every person has a reason for their actions (normally family pressure) and things seem to take logical steps threatening to blow up until Cage goes for redemption which is quite touching in light of what has gone before.

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