All of the characters, even the bad blokes, need to play things on the soft… (Lena Herzog / First Look…)
Cold-blooded reptiles are lurking everywhere in the slick new noir "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," with snakes, iguanas, gators and especially Nicolas Cage at their slithering and cynical best.
Director Werner Herzog opens the film with the snake just so we're clear that he will be exposing the seductive and duplicitous underbelly of things from the start. It's a beautiful shot, dark and silvery, with a water moccasin moving inland through the rising black tide of Hurricane Katrina.
Enter Cage's detective Terence McDonagh, just part of the debris kicked up by the storm. There's a jail cell, a forgotten prisoner struggling to keep his head above water as Terence and his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) look on, making bets on how long he'll last. In the first of many ripple effects, a last-minute rescue earns Terence a medal of honor, a promotion, a serious back injury and a cocaine habit to ease the pain.
So we have the setup and the bad cop that Herzog will push into the deep bayou muck, human and otherwise, that Katrina leaves behind. You can almost see the director smile as Terence descends into a netherworld of drugs and gambling and murder investigations, the stakes getting higher, the risks greater, the world crazier.
If you're looking for it, there are echoes of the earlier "Bad Lieutenant" with Harvey Keitel, including the basic premise of the double life of a drug-fueled rogue cop. But the madness and the badness are of a more cerebral stripe. New York has been traded for New Orleans, a moody mistress on her best days. In the aftermath of the storm, she's weary, in tatters and just the match for a director with devastation on his mind.
Here the story involves the murder of a family of five -- illegal immigrants dealing heroin without cutting in the local drug lord, Big Fate (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner), who just couldn't let the slight go.
Though you can see it coming, watching Terence get handed the case comes with a certain perverse pleasure, mostly of the train wreck variety. By now the drugs are working their voodoo on the once good cop, making him fearless, ruthless and ridiculously sloppy.
There are complicated side stories, all of which include Terence either getting into or out of trouble. The pain that puts him in these predicaments seems real enough in Cage's hands. It begins with the way he twists his spine so that one shoulder lists downward. His jaw is mostly clinched and deep ridges ride across his brow. At times the pain is so palpable, you'd consider slipping him drugs yourself if you had any.
While Terence is driven by his addictions, Herzog is driven by a few obsessions of his own -- like weird interludes with animals. A freeway crash involves an auto and an alligator, with another gator looking on in irony or empathy, your choice. Iguanas turn up, Zelig-like, throughout the film, though a close-up of one on a coffee table with some suitable music is unforgettable.
When the drugs don't come easy, Terence gets creative. More than once he's outside a nightclub named Gator's Retreat waiting for his quarry: rich guy and hot chick. "You fit the description," he yells as they're slammed against a wall. Our bad boy pockets their drugs, lectures the guy, has his way with the girl, then heads off to share what's left of the spoils with sweet, sexy Frankie, his high-class hooker/girlfriend played with a nice, soft touch by Eva Mendes.
But then all the characters, even the bad blokes, need to play things on the soft side to keep the film in balance against the rising mania of the lieutenant (with Jennifer Coolidge as his beer-soaked stepmom, a particular treat).
Herzog usually does his best work with men in crisis, manipulating tension and machismo like hot wax, whether a documentary on the gruesome death of an Alaskan bear activist in "Grizzly Man," or the drama/thriller of "Rescue Dawn," with Christian Bale as a long-held POW on the run. "Bad Lieutenant" will add to that legacy as Terence works out his anger issues through a drift of cocaine.
Cage so disappears inside the increasingly unhinged cop that given the actor's reported bizarre financial meltdown currently juicing the tabloids -- decorative shrunken heads? pet king cobras? -- it's tempting to forget that Cage is not Terence. That would be unfair though, and diminish the sheer ferocity of his performance.
Herzog has done well by noir too, giving us exactly what he should -- crime, corruption, sarcasm, sex, sleaze and shadows all through the glass darkly.