Friday 21 May 2010


The new Nicolas Cage/Werner Herzog film is now in cinemas. More after the jump...

Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) finds himself working the beat in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He shows compassion and helps a trapped, drowning prisoner at the destroyed police station, leaving himself with chronic back pain. Six months later he finds he can only alleviate his pain with increasingly harder drugs that have left him addicted. When an immigrant family is murdered in their home, Terence is tasked with finding the killers and discovering what link a local drug baron has to it all.

Nicolas Cage is an extremely odd film star. As his fame has risen, he's taken bold leaps towards the insane, sometimes for the good of a film and often to its detriment. Here he gets the balance right, although it may not be an even balance. He's either stable enough to pass for an active police officer or crazy enough to look off his face on drugs, and as the story progresses Cage becomes more and more wired. There's a good half hour in the middle where his voice and manner of speech changes completely and his hunch becomes more pronounced, as if he's slowly transforming into a monster. Then, just as you get used to him slurring his words, he reverts back to how he was before, the right combination of narcotics allowing him to function properly.

The murder of the Senegalese family is really just a MacGuffin to get all the key players into place, and then to wind up the spinning top that is Nicolas Cage and watch him go. There's some bizarre line readings, more than a generous helping of overacting, and some fantastic questionable choices made for his character. I've never seen anyone on screen or in real life carry a loaded weapon the way Cage does, keeping it lodged into his belt next to the buckle. It can't be practical.

You don't need to have seen the original 1992 Bad Lieutenant to see this version (Keitel and Cage's characters are totally different people), but it might help if you've seen a Werner Herzog film before. This film takes some very strange and bizarre turns and those who've seen Herzog at work may have an added appreciation of the film. A perfect example is the scene where a gangster is gunned down by the drug baton Big Fate. As his corpse lay on the floor, Terence demands he shoots him again as 'his soul is still dancing', to which we are treated to Terence's vision of a breakdancing corpse. This is all soundtracked by the same music used for the infamous chicken dance sequence in Herzog's 1977 film Stroszek.

It would be remiss of me not to compare both Bad Lieutenant films, along with the performances of Cage as Terence McDonagh and Keitel as the unnamed Lieutenant. Whereas Keitel's character is tortured and angry, Cage is jovial and friendly. He may threaten people with a gun, but they shrug it off because that's just a side effect of Terence when he likes to party. The original film offered glimpses of a need for companionship with his liaisons with prostitutes. Here Eva Mendes as the tart with a heart adds little to the story, seemingly only there to dig Terence into even deeper trouble. It's good to see Val Kilmer here, but he can't match the intensity of Cage's screen presence, and is quickly overshadowed.

The setting also adds a lot to the films. Keitel was confined to the streets, surrounded by car horns and mania. Cage drives around the ravaged New Orleans, most of which resembles a shanty town. When you set a film in modern day New Orleans, there has to be at least the hint of a political agenda. You could argue that the American government has done little to fix this broken city, and the further descent into drug dependency is a result of that, not a cause. The immigrant family, looking for a new life in America found themselves segregated, and took the only option available to them. There's a two tier society, and it's through drugs, prostitution or corruption that you get to live comfortably. Some of this is hinted towards, but it's never fully addressed.

As for its place in Nicolas Cage's filmography, I do think it's the best work he's done in a while. His lieutenant reminded me at times of Castor Troy from Face/Off, with his grimaces and outlandish statements. 'To the break of dawn!' indeed. I would like to see someone try another Bad Lieutenant film in 20 years time. In fact, maybe one should be made every generation to showcase an acting talent, because it's the perfect role to see Nicolas Cage at all his high wire act best.

It's definitely a good half hour too long, and the procedural aspect bogs down the film in its first hour, but there's some darkly funny moments as it progresses. When the drugs kick in and Cage really lets loose, this film is a treat.


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