It took nearly 15 years, but Nicholas Cage has finally reminded audiences that under those ever-changing, god awful hairstyles and goofy grimace is an Academy Award-winning actor. With the exception of his turn as Charlie/Donald Kaufman in “Adaptation,” Cage has been stuck in an insipid rut since 1995, when he took home the Oscar for his heartrending portrayal of a suicidal alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter in “Leaving Las Vegas.” In “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans,” however, Cage rekindles his cinematic spark to save what would have otherwise been a lifeless made-for-TV crime drama.
From the opening scene, audiences get a fairly good look at just what kind of police officer Terence McDonagh (Cage, “Knowing”) is. As a pleading prisoner begins to drown in a flooded cell, McDonagh toys with the captive, debating whether saving his life is worth ruining the $55 pair of Swiss cotton underpants McDonagh is wearing, and betting his partner what the man’s time of death will be. In the end, McDonagh rescues the prisoner, severely injuring his back in the process.
The truth is McDonagh is a bad lieutenant. He’s addicted to painkillers, cocaine and heroin, and never is there a day when he isn’t high on something. He gambles away money he doesn’t have. He takes sexual favors as bribes. Yet somehow McDonagh cleverly manages to keep his demons just at the brink of self-destruction, allowing “heroic” deeds like rescuing a drowning prisoner to create the illusion of a good cop who deserves the numerous promotions he receives.
If this film proves anything, it’s that Cage is at his best when he doesn’t sell himself out for self-deprecating roles in films like “Ghost Rider” and “Bangkok Dangerous,” and instead takes on something he can make his own. With a sick sense of wit and trudging demeanor, Cage fills the morally dark shoes of McDonagh and creates a vivid portrayal of an addict in constant internal limbo with himself. Just when you think McDonagh is about to let his better judgment shine through, Cage pulls off a jarring about-face, allowing his character’s slightly disturbing, yet charismatic personality to come out in full display in a maniacal, drug-induced fit of glee.
Unfortunately, Cage’s spot-on performance is about the only thing keeping this film from drowning. Taking an approach similar to the one he took in his previous films, director Werner Herzog (“Rescue Dawn”) expertly focuses on the individual and his attempt to escape his personal prison. While Christian Bale’s prison in “Rescue Dawn” was a literal one, Herzog creates the same agonizing conflict with Cage’s character and his internal prison.
Herzog also does an excellent job of visually capturing the film’s morose mood. Set in New Orleans a year after Hurricane Katrina, the film perfectly plays off the vibe of a ravaged ghost town that cannot escape the treacherous shadows of crime and disaster that haunt it. Herzog’s ability to manipulate the cinematography so that it enhances the screenplay keeps the film looking dynamic even when the plot isn’t.
While screenwriter William Finkelstein pens a wonderfully well-developed character in McDonagh, he doesn’t have quite as much success when it comes to the screenplay as a whole. This isn’t all that surprising since this is Finkelstein’s first film. He does, however, have numerous TV screenwriting credits, including popular crime dramas like “NYPD Blue,” “Law & Order” and “L.A. Law.” As a result, Finkelstein mistakenly approaches this film like one of his scripted TV shows where the actual crime story doesn’t matter to a great extent as long as the characters are interesting.
This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the film’s supporting cast was as fascinating as Cage’s main character. Eva Mendes (“The Spirit”) has the sultry looks and pained persona down as McDonagh’s prostitute girlfriend, but her undeveloped character has only two purposes: eye candy and plot device. As the clich?d mob boss Big Fate, Xzibit (“American Violet”), continues his disheartening attempts to make the hackneyed transformation from rapper to actor. The only thing more disheartening is seeing Val Kilmer (“The Thaw”) as McDonagh’s partner and wondering what the hell happened to his career.
Although “Bad Lieutenant” isn’t anything too out of the ordinary as far as crime dramas go, the one-two punch of Cage’s mesmerizing performance and the ominous, yet vivacious New Orleans cinematography make this film worth taking a shot on. At the very least, you get to see Cage with a normal haircut before the ridiculous mangy manes he sports in his two upcoming blockbusters.
3 stars out of 5.