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Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

I love it when Nicolas Cage goes bat-shit crazy. He can have this manic energy on screen that will slowly get your attention until he does something so outrageous that you will wonder how he pulled that off. In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Calls New Orleans he is directed by Werner Herzog, with whom I hope he will work again because the result is electrifying.

Cage plays the titular lieutenant, Terence McDonagh, who gets that rank after rescuing an inmate from a flooding jail cell during the landfall of hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, he seriously injures his back and is told by his doctor that he will be suffering from back pain for the rest of his life. He is given prescriptions for Vicodin, the pain medication that Dr. House used to eat like M&Ms before he went into rehab, but that’s not enough for McDonagh. Soon he is using marijuana, cocaine, crack, and heroine, but the heroine was an accident.

Despite being on enough narcotics to give Keith Richards second thoughts, McDonagh is efficient enough to be given a high profile murder case. A drug dealer and his entire family were executed in their home and the police captain (Vondie Curtis Hall) wants results. McDonagh does what every cop is supposed to do: he questions witnesses, follows evidence, and eventually finds the name of the drug dealer who chose to wipe out the competition. What is unique about his investigative techniques is that he will smoke marijuana with a suspect, threaten the grandmother of a witness with his 44 magnum, and participate in a stakeout while being so intoxicated that he hallucinates a pair of iguanas on a coffee table.

When he is off duty, and sometimes when he is on duty, McDonagh spends time with Frankie (Eva Mendes), a prostitute who shares some of his bad habits but probably makes more money than he does. She lives in a room in a hotel that must have at least four stars since there is a doorman in uniform who probably has a good idea of what is going on in the building. When McDonagh walks just as a client is about to leave, he is clearly jealous but lets the client since he has cocaine on him. There seems to be no depth he will not sink to in order to get high, but you have to hand it to him, his goal is to get the job done. He is like the energizer bunny, except he doesn’t run on batteries; he runs on a lucky crack pipe.

His partner is played by Val Kilmer, who can’t help but notice that his partner is growing more and more erratic. Eventually McDonagh’s bookie even shows up at the police station because to top it all off, he is also a sports gambler. The bookie is played by Brad Dourif, another great character actor who seems to have some sympathy for the high-strung lieutenant who is clearly digging himself into a hole. Of course it is not beyond him to ask McDonagh to clear up some speeding tickets for his daughter. If you have a dirty cop gambling his pay checks on football games, it’s not crazy to ask him for favours since he obviously has a low moral center.

Eventually it all begins to crumble. McDonagh finds the drug dealer, a suave and well-dressed murderer called Big Fate (Xzibit), but he has a good lawyer, no one will speak against him, and there is no evidence. Serious gangsters are after Frankie and McDonagh wants to bail her out of trouble. To top it all off there is trouble at home when McDonagh senior (Tom Bower) enters rehab, leaves his wife (Jennifer Coolidge) alone at alone causing her to panic about who will take her of the dog. She claims that she isn’t an addict since she only drinks beer. One can only hope that any person in charge would prove her wrong.

All of this makes a very fun and darkly comical film. Cage clearly owns the show as a cop who is on the breaking point and yet manages to outthink the bad guys with a move that is so clever you won’t see it coming. Despite all the drugs, violence, and manic moments, he finds time to tell Frankie a touching childhood story involving a lost silver spoon. New Orleans is the perfect setting for his character. After Katrina hit, the city is in shambles and the atmosphere resembles that of the Wild West. Outlaws are running rampant in the streets and the police are trying to round out the worst ones.

Who better to film this crazy story than Werner Herzog? He pulls this together will setting camera shots whose meanings aren’t exactly clear. There is a scene when the camera goes to ground level and shoots from the point of view of an iguana near the highway. Then when McDonagh sees the iguanas during the stakeout, the camera focuses on them for a whole minute. They don’t do anything, they are just there and Cage is staring at them. Bizarre, but this is still one wild ride into New Orleans with one bad lieutenant behind the wheel.

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