Leave it to Werner Herzog's animalistic direction style to bring out the acting performance that Nicolas Cage has always had brewing inside of him. Cage has shown us multiple times that he has acting talent -- Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and Bringing Out The Dead (1999) are two films where he is at his finest -- but he seems to sacrifice his talent to appear in more commercial films, and when he decides to take a risk his choices of work are usually lousy. So, seeing him in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, where he is able to calm down and be as outrageous as possible is to see him finally shine again.
Inspired by Abel Ferrara cult classic, Bad Lieutenant (1992), which was co-written by the late, Ferrara discovered, actress Zoe Lund and starring Harvey Keitel; Keitel is fantastic in his shocking role as The Lieutenant, a respected officer in the NYPD whose betting debts and drug addiction are quickly destroying his life and career. Ferrara's film is much more pessimistic and depressing, being much less sympathetic on his title character. This film's script is written by Emmy Award winning television writer, producer and occasional actor, William Finkelstein. Werner Herzog states that he has not seen any films by Abel Ferrara, but it is obvious that Finkelstein has. It is fantastic how he uses his experience with law enforcement -- on shows like Law & Order and L.A. Law -- to create a script that accurately, and intelligently reveals a police force struggling during hard economic times with one man as our guide through the madness. Herzog's take on the same story and character is just as merciless as Ferrara's, but he is able to bring more depth to the his "bad lieutenant" by not shying away from his ruthless deeds while still revealing the heart within his character, creating a more tragic figure. The film respectfully, and most likely unintentionally on Herzog's part, remembers Ferrara's film by paying homage to it with two scenes where his title character pulls over two young couples and terrorizes them with a similarity to Ferrara's "Traffic Stop" scene.
Cage plays Terrence McDonagh, when we first see him him and his partner clearing out a fellow officer's locker after Hurrican Katrina, we immediately get a feel for his character as he discovers a prisoner who wasn't transferred nearly drowning in a cell; he taunts him, and even with him saving, the prisoner this first-impression creates an unappealing picture. After that first-impression it immediately jumps to him being promoted to lieutenant which really makes you question just who is in charge of our law enforcement; then after his promotion the film jumps 6 months into the future where Terrence is now in charge of solving the murder of an entire family of illegal immigrants from Senegal. From that point on we see Terrence's drug addictions become out of control, his betting debts increase, and his work methods become more violent and directionless.
At first his intentions are good-natured; he feels genuine sorrow for the murdered family, especially the children. Herzog does at brilliant job at deceiving us by showing Terrence's unconventional, and at times illegal, work methods initially when he is in a solid frame of mind and as he is actually working to solve the murders. But as his controlled frame of mind begins to slip we realize just how dangerous he really is. His drug addicted, prostitute girlfriend Frankie -- played wonderfully by Eva Mendes -- surprisingly, and consistently, shows us a lighter side to Terrence. Also his strained relationship with his alcoholic father and sister (Jennifer Coolidge) helps us sympathize with him.
The way Herzog is patient with his title character and allows us to loathe him and sympathize with him, almost in the same breath, alone takes it to a level higher than Ferrara's source film. When Terrence confronts Big Fate (Xzibit), the murderer he was so passionately searching for, and instead of capturing him he sets up a dirty deal that is the moment that can be credited with being when the film spirals out of control. But what I found to be miraculous was just how much I enjoyed (yes, I said "enjoyed") Cage's turn into sadistic drug addict. He controls the screen, his loud rants are hilarious and when the violence arrives, it arrives in exhilarating doses.
Along with Eva Mendes and Xzibit, Brad Dourif also has a strong performance in the film as Terrence's bookie, but each of those role's primary purpose is to show the different sides of Terrence's personality. Mendes' performance brings out his purer, deeper side; Xzibit's performance brings out his violent, sadistic side; and Brad Dourif's performance brings out his more desperate side. Unfortunately Val Kilmer's strong, yet very brief, role as officer Steve Pruit isn't utilized to its full potential.
This film is controlled by Herzog's direction that is patient when needed, always explorative, and shocking in its depiction of the desperation in human nature. This film shows Cage at his peak, a peak he most likely won't reach again. The way the film ends with everything miraculously falling into place except Terrence's sanity is pure Herzog style; extremely abrupt, yet with a hint of depressing realism. This film isn't the most balanced and Cage's crazed role with Herzog's storytelling weirdness can pack in on a little much at times, but their is just so much to enjoy and even admire. Those two men at the top of their game create a film that is a deep as anyone wants it to be and as bitterly entertaining as films come.