Movie review: Cage is good as 'Bad Lieutenant'

Al Alexander

Now that Nicolas Cage is as financially bankrupt as he was professionally, you could say it’s an opportune time for him to go for broke. And boy does he in Werner Herzog’s whacked-out “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” This is the Nic Cage of old, the risk-taking crazy one who tore through “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Wild at Heart” and “Adaptation.” And it’s almost enough to make you forget how badly he’s been shirking on monstrosities like “Hell Rider,” “Knowing,” “Next” and every other picture he’s prostituted his talents on during the past five or six years.

The role is right in his wheelhouse, too: A drugged-out corrupt cop with a high-priced hooker girlfriend in Eva Mendes and a propensity for frisking – and raping – his female perps.

He’s so bad, he makes “The Shield’s” Vic Mackey look like Donny Osmond. And what other actor could leave you so repulsed, yet so utterly entertained? The ease with which he fires off William Finkelstein’s pulpy dialogue also makes you realize how much you missed his deadpan sense of humor. It’s a flawless, tongue-in-cheek style that perfectly complements the drollness of his director, who is possibly even more insane than Cage.

Yes, Herzog may be mad, but he’s also a bit of a genius. Who else would have the audacity to essentially remake Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult classic, “Bad Lieutenant,” and relocate it from New York to New Orleans? All filmmakers should be this crazy.

True to Finkelstein’s roots in TV cop shows like “NYPD Blue,” the movie is set within the parameters of a police procedural, as Cage’s Lt. Terence McDonagh hunts those responsible for a quintuple homicide in the weeks immediately after Hurricane Katrina. But the crime is never as important as the guy investigating it. How could it be when McDonagh is behaving so outrageously? If he doesn’t have his nose buried in a line of coke, he’s fending off a ticked-off mobster or relieving pretty young club-hoppers on Bourbon Street of their designer drugs and virtues.

As if New Orleans wasn’t an exotic enough backdrop for his exploits, Herzog makes it even more unusual by indulging his lifelong fascination with man vs. nature by incorporating alligators, iguanas and water moccasins. Sometimes they even fill the foreground while the scene plays out behind them. It’s certainly strange, but such indulgences also prove a great source of humor, as does rapper Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner as a nouveau riche drug kingpin who is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

The only guy you really keep your eyes on, though, is Cage, which is saying something when he has an actor as notoriously hammy as Val Kilmer playing his partner. But Kilmer is smart and doesn’t even try to keep pace.

Only Mendes, who excels at these sultry women roles, comes close to diverting attention, as the story grows increasingly bizarre in building toward a kick-butt ending that is more than satisfying. Not to mention, funny as hell.

Chalk that up to Herzog, whose misanthropic wit makes the wry German one of my favorite people in film. Unlike most directors, he doesn’t play the Hollywood game, shunning sycophants and studio execs, while uncompromisingly making the movies he likes to make.

That’s exactly why they’re so refreshing and wildly unpredictable. And that is “Bad Lieutenant’s” greatest strength. It challenges you and at times, exasperates you, but by the end, you know you’ve seen something alive, real and completely mesmerizing.

More than that, he’s rescued Cage, one of our more gifted actors, from the junk heap. And while the iconic star may be strapped for cash, “Bad Lieutenant” reminds that when it comes to talent, he’s one of the richest men in the world.

Al Alexander may be reached

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS  (R for drug use and language throughout, some violence and sexuality.) Cast includes Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer and Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner. 3 stars.