Your Humble Reviewer doesn’t under­stand the intense anti-Nicholas Cage bias that has become a pop­u­lar meme with film cultists in the last few years.  Sure, he’s done a lot of big-bud­get dreck… but so have tons of oth­er Hollywood names, past and present.  Besides, no one was going to be able to save duds like Ghost Rider, 8mm or that awful redux of The Wicker Man.  His rep­u­ta­tion has also tak­en a beat­ing from the tabloids over the last decade or so, what with the tra­vails of his love life and his finan­cial prob­lems, and that makes it eas­ier for some to think of him as a joke.

However, using the above rea­sons as an excuse to deny his tal­ent is just lazy think­ing.   Cage should actu­al­ly be thanked for his crazy per­for­mances in bad movies — he pro­vides an ele­ment of inspi­ra­tion and unpre­dictabil­i­ty amid­st all the megabucks empti­ness and allows the writ­ers, direc­tors and execs respon­si­ble for the real prob­lems in said films to escape unscathed.  It’s more of a fair crit­i­cism to say he doesn’t pick enough work wor­thy of his tal­ent or fear­less­ness — because when he picks a wor­thy role, you’re remind­ed what a gut­sy, unfor­get­table actor he real­ly is.

For a great exam­ple of how Cage’s unusu­al tal­ents can be used well, one need look no fur­ther than Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call, New Orleans.  It was vil­i­fied long before it hit movie screens, name­ly because of the endur­ing and under­stand­able respect every­one has for the Abel Ferrara orig­i­nal.  That said, this is no remake.  Instead, Herzog and Cage have used the title and con­cept as a jump­ing-off point for a black com­e­dy that over­flows with their own spe­cial brand of cin­e­mat­ic brinks­man­ship.

On the sur­face, it’s pure schlock that fol­lows a tra­jec­to­ry famil­iar to any­one who has watched cop shows or direct-to-video thrillers in the last few decades.  Terence McDonagh (Cage) is a cop in Katrina-era New Orleans who injured his back sav­ing a pris­on­er from a flood­ed jail cell.  After the acci­dent, he lives in a haze of pain meds and ille­gal drugs with a live-in hook­er girl­friend (Eva Mendes) as he tries to get by.  His messy life gets fur­ther com­pli­cat­ed when he starts to inves­ti­gate the exe­cu­tion-style killing of an immi­grant fam­i­ly by a drug deal­er (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner).  As he tries to put a case togeth­er, he jug­gles his many per­son­al and pub­lic demons in a cir­cus act that gets cra­zier by the sec­ond.

However, that plot sum­ma­ry doesn’t begin to hint at the live-wire inten­si­ty that Cage brings to the table.  For once, his quirks have a per­fect, jus­ti­fied vehi­cle.  Walking with a per­pet­u­al slant due to his omnipresent back pain and load­ed up with any num­ber of drugs, McDonagh is capa­ble of burst­ing into laugh­ter, rage or an eso­ter­ic mono­logue at any given moment.  Cage’s skill for off­beat yet com­mit­ted flights of Method-act­ing fan­cy mir­rors the char­ac­ter per­fect­ly.  You get a lit­tle bit of every­thing Cage can do, from qui­et inten­si­ty to oper­at­ic fury — and there’s nev­er a false note hit any­where in-between.  What’s more, you’ll nev­er know what he’s going to do next.  He pro­vides the kind of white-knuck­le excite­ment we haven’t got­ten from him since Vampire’s Kiss.

Cage’s brave work ben­e­fits from its han­dling by a direc­tor who is every bit as fear­less and com­mit­ted to doing the unex­pect­ed.  In fact, Herzog’s direc­tion does behind the cam­era what Cage is doing in front of the cam­era.  A clichéd scene where Cage with­holds oxy­gen from a wealthy old lady to get info morphs into some­thing else when Cage is allowed to launch into a rant where he exco­ri­ates her for the sym­bol­ic role she has played in ruin­ing the coun­try.  A scene in a stake­out room stops dead so we can get a close­up of the igua­nas that Cage is hal­lu­ci­nat­ing (!) while an impas­sioned swamp-soul cov­er of “Release Me” blares on the sound­track.  Herzog’s sur­re­al­ist black-com­e­dy approach to his mate­ri­al is furi­ous­ly and unpre­dictably alive, just like his lead actor’s per­for­mance.

In sum­ma­tion, The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call, New Orleans might be lit­tle more than a lark for Cage and Herzog but their tag-team eccen­tric­i­ty gives it the unpre­dictable twists and the kind of wild ener­gy that future cult films are made of.  The com­bined force of their work is rem­i­nis­cent of a key scene from the film: after some drug-deal­er friends shoot up a loan­shark on his behalf, Cage tells them to shoot him again because “his soul is still danc­ing” — cut to an image of a dou­ble dressed like the dead man break­danc­ing furi­ous­ly.  With this film, Cage and Herzog both are break­danc­ing their way  through a for­mu­la setup en route to artis­tic tran­scen­dence.  All Your Humble Reviewer has to say in respon­se is “Go, cat, GO!!!”