As Oscar buzz now goes into full swing, let us take a moment to commend Werner Herzog for the honor of making the two kookiest movies of 2009: ‘My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” and ‘The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” Herzog is no stranger to reveling in the bizarre, what with his own idiosyncratic projects and collaborations with fellow eccentrics Klaus Kinski and Harmony Korine. His two most recent films both stand as career highlights.

‘My Son, My Son” has all the makings of an unusual affair. Besides being directed by Herzog, it is also executive-produced by David Lynch and stars Michael Shannon, who earned an Oscar nomination for portraying a mental ill man in ‘Revolutionary Road.”
And that’s without even mentioning the plot, which centers around a man who plans to kill his mother while starring in a Greek play about a man who kills his mother and is also a little obsessed with his pet flamingos.

But ‘The Bad Lieutenant” is the film that actually got some attention enough to get to Rochester, at least. It’s the more accessible of the two films, seeing how it has star power (Nicolas Cage!) and the framework of Abel Ferrera’s 1992 ‘Bad Lieutenant” (plot!). Which is not to say that ‘The Bad Lieutenant” plays it safe, or that it doesn’t have plenty of crazy to go around.

Cage stars as Terence McDonagh, a police lieutenant in post-Katrina New Orleans. In the beginning, Terence is actually a good lieutenant, who personally rescues a man who is about to drown in a prison flood. His act of heroism earns him local recognition but also crippling back pain. The painkillers he is prescribed hardly do the trick, so he takes the next logical step and develops a mighty cocaine habit.

From there, obviously, things start getting a little out of hand, and not just because this ‘Bad Lieutenant” completely diverts from the 1992 film it is supposedly based on.
Terence is assigned to investigate the execution of an entire family and eventually finds himself in the middle of a local drug ring. With this, ‘The Bad Lieutenant” might have worked as a suspenseful crime film, but Herzog decided, eh, no thanks.
Instead, the investigation story in ‘The Bad Lieutenant” is often an issue on the sideline of Terence’s own personal breakdown.

He uses his job to score drugs from the streets or just steal drugs from crime scenes. He pulls a gun on a pharmacist who is taking too long to fill his prescription. He blackmails a local football star to lose a game so Terence can be on good terms with his impatient bookie. He visits his hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes), sometimes stealing drugs from one of her customers. And, oh yeah, maybe every once in a while he makes progress on the case.

The scenes that get talked about the most are the baffling non sequiturs Herzog tosses into the narrative. At one point, Terence sees visions of iguanas on a table. None of his co-workers can he see them, but they are treated to intense close-ups for several minutes.

Later Terence insists that a dead man should be shot again because ‘His soul is still dancing” a soon-to-be-classic quote if I’ve ever heard one and then we actually watch the man’s soul dancing (breakdancing, no less). But perhaps the most notable aspect of these scenes is not how strange they are, but how they don’t even represent ‘The Bad Lieutenant” at its strangest.

We can thank Nicolas Cage for that. Anybody who has ventured through pretty much any movie he’s starred in over the past five years is well aware of his penchant for insane overacting, which can range from hilarious to disquieting. In ‘The Bad Lieutenant,” he’s constantly and effectively alternating between the two. Cage doesn’t bother toning himself down for ‘The Bad Lieutenant,” he just puts his rampant nuttiness to good use.
A lesser film would have portrayed Terence progressively plunging deeper into a downward spiral. Instead, Terence’s behavior is the most wildly unpredictable thing in the movie.

One minute he seems cool, composed, able to follow through with his police work, and in the next he’s robbing a couple outside a club or seeing the iguanas or suffocating an old woman and cursing her out because she won’t answer his questions. He walks with a hunch and has a lockjaw accent that comes and goes at random.

Cage hardly lends any logic to his character. He doesn’t progress towards redemption or sympathy or even coherent conduct, which is the perfect way to portray him. With Herzog’s offbeat encouragement, Cage’s performance is enough to make ‘The Bad Lieutenant” forcefully entertainment. In fact, anything like a compelling crime story might have just been superfluous here; in its frantic style, ‘The Bad Lieuteant” already gives plenty to be excited about.

Silverstein is a member of
the class of 2013.

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