Not many people say it, but Nicolas Cage gets a bad rap. Often, even from me. Sure, he’s made some questionable script choices in the past, and been known for a few colorful and even over-the-top performances, but if there’s one thing he is known for, it’s consistency in a role. That’s exactly what he brings to the table with Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
The film is an almost-modern-day reboot of the 1992 film starring Harvey Keitel. This time, rather than the rough streets of New York City, the setting has been changed to a post-Katrina New Orleans, with crime high and morals low, the only thing left to keep the streets safe is a deranged lieutenant on a path to his own personal hell.
There are certainly many problems with the film, which we’ll go into, but the most important positive thing coming out of it is Cage’s performance as Terence McDonagh, the titular lieutenant. Cage’s character goes on a self-destruct mission about 10 minutes into the film that would make The Shield’s Vic Mackie look like a saint. We’re talking about raping suspects, stealing crack, constant gambling, and harassing other cops into trashing tickets. In short, he’s not a very nice guy.
It was even stated by Herzog in a recent interview that he was convinced Cage was actually doing cocaine in some scenes because of the bone-chilling intensity and realism that the actor was able to bring to the role. There are certain moments when you can pat yourself on the back, Mr. Cage, and when a veteran director thinks you’re actually on cocaine, that is definitely one of them.
With Cage’s unconventional performance also comes the strong negatives of the film. Werner Herzog has directed nearly 60 films, so it’s expected he’s fashioned his own directing style in these films. He seems to throw most of those “skills of the trade” away for Lieutenant and we are instead left with a film that’s pretty much a mess and almost devoid of any rational thought or planning. There are a few shots in particular that deserved a unanimous “huh?” from the audience, especially when the film cuts to a POV view of an alligator during a scene between Cage and Fairuza Balk. Moments like those came across as confusing and arbitrary, rather than artistic.
As for the film’s writing, that was also a bit of a problem. William Finkelstein, who has written for such shows as L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, penned the screenplay so one would think he could write some great cop and criminal dialogue. You would be wrong, at least in this case.
Unfortunately the dialogue comes across as what someone from L.A. or New York thinks people in New Orleans sound like, which was incorrect. The pacing of the first 10 minutes is a bit confusing as well, and jumps around in time more than an episode of LOST. It should be noted that Finkelstein also wrote several episode of Cop Rock. Just sayin’. Fortunately, none of the main characters break into song at any time during the film.
In spite of the film’s script and direction issues, Cage’s dedicated performance makes the film almost watchable. The fact that mainstream Hollywood can still attempt edgy and gritty cop dramas with thoroughly despicable main characters is refreshing, and gives fans of classics cop dramas like Serpico and The French Connection hope.