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!!!”