Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

I think I pulled a muscle in my back while working out on my Iron Gym before dinner last night. Not excruciating pain, but the gradually building soreness grew aggravating. I thought it might be relaxing to spend the rest of the evening lying on the couch watching a movie. Then I made the inappropriate decision to watch a movie that recently came out on DVD, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Bad timing on my part. The movie opens in the wake of the levee breaks in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After rescuing an imprisoned man about to drown in the rising waters, Sergeant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) is promoted to the rank of Lieutenant for his bravery, but pays the price by injuring his back. Informed by his doctor that he may have lower back pain the rest of his life, McDonagh in one year's time adds a cocaine habit to his Vicodin prescription. Watching Cage live through this affliction and addiction only heightened my own misery.

It's been a long time since Cage has really invested himself into a character with such commitment. The past decade has pretty much been filled with performances set on autopilot, with only a faint glimmer here and there of the level of brilliance he exhibited in the 80's and 90's. But in Bad Lieutenant, Cage is absolutely unhinged. Imagine the intensity of his inebriated highs in Leaving Las Vegas combined with the manic impulsiveness on display in Vampire's Kiss or Wild at Heart. That's the closest I can come to describing the energy on display. He is a man possessed by demons both physical and spiritual, and the result is a performance that is emotionally explosive.

Being a big fan of the original Bad Lieutenant from 1992 directed by Abel Ferrara and starring Harvey Keitel, I was interested in how director Werner Herzog would reimagine the story by taking it out of the mean streets of New York City and placing it in the post-Katrina morass of New Orleans. The results are both exhilarating and confounding. Both movies feature a similar character in a similar predicament: a corrupt cop whose personal demons drive him into a deep descent fueled by drugs, sex and gambling. But whereas Ferrara's incarnation is a brooding furrowing into the darkness of a tortured soul, Herzog's take is an exercise in insanity lapsing into surreal giddiness. Both movies are journeys into the darker side of life, but Herzog and Cage somehow manage to find the sick truth that debauchery has its sense of joy too.

What I found confounding was the differences in how each movie found resolution in the arc of their respective characters. At the end of Harvey Keitel's descent into a proverbial hell, he finds a spiritual redemption that saves his soul. What starts as a gritty crime drama morphs into a Catholic moral fable. Nicolas Cage's resolution is a little harder to label. As with Keitel's journey, there is a descending spiral of darkness tied to a criminal case the detective is following that fuels his drug and gambling frenzy. But the miracles that occur that transform Cage are much more temporal compared to the miracles that transform Keitel. This results in a resolution that is not as tragic/transcendental as Keitel's arc, but is more down to earth about the reality of dealing with addiction.

But I'm not sure if Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, for all its manic highs and bluesy lows, is as emotionally satisfying as its predescessor. Perhaps this is because it avoids passing moral judgment. My gut reaction in the wake of this rollercoaster is that the moral of the story is: Corruption Pays. Maybe that's an overly simplistic reading of the resolution, but that is reality, especially where the subject of narcotics is concerned. An article titled Solari Rising by Catherine Austin Fitts does an excellent job of analyzing how our economic infrastructure is addicted to the $500 billion to $1 trillion annual money laundering windfall from narcotics trafficking and all organized crime profits. So maybe Herzog isn't being too glib in showing that sometimes all you need to turn your life around is a lucky crackpipe.


Tanya @ TeenAutism said...

Excellent review! I'd like to see it - we haven't had a glimpse of Cage at his best for a long time.

Robert Paulsen said...

Definitely worth a rental for his performance alone.