Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bad Lieutenant - Herzog style

I've written about mad genius director Werner Herzog many times before. I wrote about his brilliant documentary Encounters at the End of the World, where Herzog traveled to the strange and beautiful world in, around, and under the ice in Antarctica (it ended up in my top ten of 2008). I also more recently wrote about his haunting magnum opus Aguirre, the Wrath of God when I was recounting the movies that just missed out on my all-time top ten. Herzog's volatile relationship with his Aguirre star Klaus Kinski (father of Natasha) is the stuff of legend. Kinski alienated the whole Aguirre crew and when he threatened to quit the production, while in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, Herzog told him he had a rifle and Kinski wasn't going anywhere. Kinski finished the film. Later, in another of their movies (yes, both were crazy enough to work together again, 5 times in fact), Kinski again alienated the crew working in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, and a native offered to kill Kinski if Herzog wanted him to. Herzog declined on the grounds that he hadn't finished filming and didn't want to re-shoot the movie. With those kinds of things in his past, it's no surprise when he decided to "remake" 1992's Harvey Kietel showcase Bad Lieutenant despite having never seen it, moving the action away from New York City, changing the plot completely, and not really considering it a remake at all. So that's how we got the terrific, but ridiculously titled, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Nicolas Cage plays the titular Lieutenant, Terence McDonagh. In the opening scenes, Terence injures his back saving an inmate from the rising water rushing in after Hurricane Katrina. That may sound like a noble way to get injured in the line of duty, but just minutes previously Terence had been making bets with his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) about when the guy would drown in his cell from the quickly rising water. Months after the injury and Terence is addicted to the vicodin he was prescribed for his back pain, and has graduated his addictions to include cocaine, heroin, crack, gambling, and trading sexual favors for letting a woman out of a ticket (while making her boyfriend watch at gunpoint). McDonagh also spends time with his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), his bookie Ned (Brad Dourif, for once not the craziest actor in his cast), and occasionally goes to visit his dad, who's successfully trying to beat his alcoholism with AA meetings. What Herzog concerns himself with plot-wise isn't really significant, this is another of his many looks at a man nearing on madness. Usually his heroes descend further into madness than they were in the beginning of the movie, and Terence looks to be on the same arc, but maybe things turn out differently for him. I think Herzog might even be giving us his version of a happy ending, who knows.

One thing that is for certain though, is that Cage and Herzog were born to work together. I sometimes forget just how brilliant Cage can be when he works with the right people and material. He, for sure, has done more than his fair share of crap over the years, but he can also be one of our finest actors when put in the correct circumstances. Working with Herzog allowed Cage to be as unhinged as he's ever been, and he hasn't been this brilliant since 2002's Adaptation. He can somehow deliver a (now classic) line like "Shoot him again, his soul is still dancing" and make it sound not like a crazy line, but like a line delivered by a crazy man. And fellow crazy man that he is, Herzog actually shows us the soul that Terence still sees dancing. He also gives us extended shots into the eyes of an alligator and multiple times into the cold staring eyes of a pair of iguanas that Terence continues to hallucinate. They're odd, strangely poetic, and completely fitting in a way that can only be described as Herzog-ian.

There's a performance in the movie even more surprising than Cage's and that's the one of Terence's step-mother Genevieve, played by Jennifer Coolidge, a.k.a. Stifler's Mom. She's constantly drunk on beer, but objects when she finds cocaine in Frankie's purse, yet doesn't object when she catches Terence snorting in the house, saying that they both just have their vices. It's a tremendously real performance next to Cage's wild man performance. There's also rapper Xzibit playing a drug kingpin and holding his own against some serious acting talent. And there are nice little cameos by Fairuza Balk and Michael Shannon. Shannon, despite his recent Oscar nomination for Revolutionary Road, appears in only two scenes for the chance to work with Herzog. Shannon would go on to star in Herzog's next movie.

So Herzog has created his latest great movie, one containing one of the best performances of '09, by Nicholas Cage at his most unrestrained and brilliant in years. He's a filmmaker that continues to intrigue me, always coming up with something interesting, keeping him on a different level than many of his peers. A Herzog movie is incapable of being boring or uninventive, and Bad Lieutenant is no exception.


Jump_Raven said...

I wonder what Kinski would have done with the role? I'll bet he would have tried to eat the iguana.

kathy said...

You didn't really say much about Eva's performance, or her as an actress. Thoughts? I feel she needs to be careful, due to her looks and body she seems to always be "the slut", or "the other women" both of which can get an actress in trouble as she ages. Very limiting...