Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans - TIFF 2009 Day 6

dir. Werner Herzog

Anyone thinking the collaboration between Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog would somehow fail to be entertaining must've been hitting their lucky crack pipe. If Nicolas Cage fails in that department it's probably due to his questionable choices in the projects he pursues. With this one role he's earned my forgiveness for the joyless junk food movies he's done since Leaving Las Vegas like NextBangkok Dangerous and National Treasure 2. For Herzog, he's proven that even with material that seemed destined for straight-to-video, he can achieve moments of high art while still making his most audience friendly film.

The programmer introducing the film pitched this one as "Leaving Las Vegas meets Grand Theft Auto", which prompted someone in the audience to actually ask whether the video game inspired the film in some way. Cage thankfully, quickly dispelled the notion that Herzog is even aware of the game. Actually, The Wire might be a better substitute in that pitch -- at least more accurate. The film comes from the pen of William M. Finkelstein, a veteran of cop/lawyer shows like NYPD Blue, LA Law, Law & Order and even Cop Rock. Not to knock Finkelstein in any way, but while Bad Lieutenant: POCNO is successfully transcendent in the end, like Ethan Hawke in GATTACA, it can't quite escape its DNA. That pesky plot... Those cookie-cutter peripheral characters... At times it can feel like Cage is simply a wild bull in the Walmart. Fortuntely Herzog does throw a good number of ringers into the mix for Cage to bounce off of like Brad Dourif, Jennifer Coolidge, Fairuza Balk and a surprisingly nimble Eva Mendes. Herzog even manages to prevent Xzibit from falling on his face. 

And at it's best, which is often enough, the film does play like an especially fucked up episode of The Wire, where the city is as much a main character as anyone else and all their problems are the symptoms of a much larger, American problem. But this is also one problem the movie suffers from -- it could really take place anywhere. Can you get more generic than a killing due to a drug dealer territorial dispute? There's nothing aside from an opening flood scene that makes this a New Orleans story. And the jump into the flood that gets Cage on the Vicodin, which the movie implies is a gateway drug to smoking crack, is a whole lot less effective than the issues at hand in the original Bad Lieutenant. But in the end, this is a good thing. It's a shame the film gets tagged with the "Bad Lieutenant" name. Spoiler alert -- Cage is actually a pretty good cop when the film wraps itself up and uses his fondness for the crack cocaine as a means to crack the case. 

I'm not sure anyone goes to a Herzog film, or even one called Bad Lieutenant, for the plot. It's the performances that tie the two Lieutenants together. And I don't think there's any way you'll be disappointed by what Cage comes to the table with. It's a fun, wild performance that actually falls into the nuanced column rather than the unrestrained one. With his lopsided walk, his coked-up cadence and his harried temper, he's less scary than he is a walking train-wreck that has somehow managed to continue down the track at varying speeds (depending on what drug is flowing through his veins at the time).

The sensational trailer that got everyone truly excited for this film is the rare one that the film actually manages to deliver on. The "shoot him again his soul is still dancing" is an instant classic. The song break for the mysterious iguanas (not iguanas?) is pure uncut Herzog. And there's a scene between Cage and a nursing home resident and her nurse that will leave audiences slack-jawed and cheering, in that order. Really, that's the kind of movie we were hoping for, and that's what we got.