Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Film Review: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans

I'll kill all of you. To the break of dawn. To the break of dawn, baby.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans (Directed by Werner Herzog, 2009): On paper, this looked like a surefire cinematic abortion. A remake of/sequel to a film that was overrated in the first place. Nicholas Cage in the lead of a Werner Herzog film, after a largely forgettable decade by the former. A character played by rapper Xzibit of 'Pimp My Ride' fame.

And it all works! And works like gangbusters!

Cage plays the titular cop, Lt. Terence McDonagh, seen first in the closing days of the Hurrican Katrina disaster, mocking a prisoner trapped in a rapidly flooding prison. After hemming and hawing about ruining his fifty dollar underwear, McDonagh finally dives in and saves the prisoner. He earns a commendation and promotion from the police force, but also winds up with a lifetime of back pain and a prescription for pain pills. The pills are a slippery slope for McDonagh, and, before we know it, we're watching him snort cocaine off the back of his hand, stealing drugs from club-hopping teenagers, and borrowing from a prostitute (Eva Mendes).

A crime occurs that seems to focus McDonagh's maniacal rage like a lazer. A family is killed, execution-style, by a notorious gangster Big Fate (Xzibit) and his cronies. McDonagh sniffs out a lead and finds a scared fifteen-year-old who finally agrees to testity. The boy is left in McDonagh's care, and the scene of Terence going out to dinner at a casino with the boy, his own father's dog (who he agrees to babysit while his father enters A.A.), and his prostitute girlfriend is hilarious.

The boy flees, McDonagh is left without a witness and Big Fate goes free. Left to grasp at straws for the case, McDonagh has the added pressure of a mounting gambling debt, a pay-off for a local gangster after he roughed up a client of his girlfriend's, and pressure from Internal Affairs after his has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed treatment of a woman and her nurse in an assisted care facility. When all this pressure becomes too much, McDonagh has to turn to Big Fate to help him out.

It's a terrific film, instead of relying on the heavy guilt and pathos of the first film, Herzog instead chooses to make Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans about, as he puts it in interviews, the "bliss of evil", and has the film straddle the line between gritty cop drama and black comedy, sometimes throwing in sequences, seemingly at random. There's a scene from the point-of-view of an alligator, McDonagh's increasingly erratic behaviour, hallucinations, and a break-dancing soul.

As for Cage, he hasn't been this riveting, this convincing, since Adaptation. He has the look of a man who has seen the inner contents of his own soul, and is terrified by what he sees, while simultaneously laughing at the weirdness of life. And the supporting cast is terrific: Jennifer Coolidge as his father's girlfriend who doesn't understand why the alcoholic can't just "stick to beer" like she does, Brad Dourif as his put-upon bookie, Michael Shannon as the man in charge of the evidence room growing weary of helping McDonagh score, Fairuza Balk, Shea Whigham, Irma P. Hall, and Val Kilmer, the only cop who might be too bad for McDonagh.

An alternately startling and hilarious film. It will leave you laughing just as many times as it has you cringing, and just as often as it will have you completely dumbfounded. Thus far, it's the best film from 2009 that I've seen.


(Thanks to Ogawa for the awesome screencap)

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