When Nicholas Cage is miscast, which happens fairly often, it can be a pretty rough watching experience. When he is given the right role, however, as he is here, he can be one of the most engaging actors in Hollywood. In “The Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call: New Orleans”, Werner Herzog sets up Cage’s Lt. McDonagh as the lone character of texture and depth in a tale of drugs, gangsters and addiction. Nicolas Cage is so spot on in his performance that he easily carries the film and left me eager to see it again. He lends his oft-used frantic, twitchy mannerisms with masterful effect to yet another Herzog tale of a man’s descent into insanity.
McDonagh is an efficient, effective cop who always seems to get the bad guys. Twice in the film he is honored by the police force for heroic deeds. But his personal life, charged by a cocaine addiction, rolls into his professional life, and he abuses his badge to threaten, steal and blackmail to get his hands on more dope. He runs afoul of ghetto gangsters and a smaller branch of the Mob along the way. What ensues is a twisting, turning race to catch murderers, pay off his debts to the Mob and his bookie, protect his girlfriend and score more drugs.
Cage’s McDonagh walks through a world of cliché characters and occasionally clunky dialogue. His manic battle with justice and addiction, gritty and cutting, is held up on all sides by one-sided personalities and situations created to provide checkpoints for character development. The gangsters are doltish and predictable, right down to their haircuts and wife-beater-wearing bodyguards. The police chief is strong, honest and inexplicably patient with the lieutenant’s inexcusable behavior. Sports stars are careless enough to buy marijuana right out on the street in the ghetto, slimy bookies somehow walk into the police station in the middle of the day and sit at the lieutenant’s desk to wait for him, and ex-cons reappear as reborn citizens who are now in the position to look upon the Lt with pity.
Yet McDonagh’s personal plight lies underneath this false world, his internal struggles brought brilliantly to life by Nicolas Cage. Early on, he badly injures his back. As the film moves along, the stiff back becomes a hunched shoulder as the prescription painkillers become a necessity, then slurred speech and a palsied face as painkillers turn into cocaine and heroin. What is so important is that Herzog and Cage stay true to the title: McDonagh is a bad lieutenant who does some really awful things, but he’s not a thoroughly bad man. It would have been very easy for director or actor to stray too far into the dark side of a drug-addled police officer. It could have turned into a sadistic action film. But because McDonagh’s problems spring from his own addictions, his drive to perform his duty as an officer is only badly marred, not utterly destroyed. This lets us watch in fascination rather than disgust.
Surprisingly disappointing is the painfully stiff, awkward ending sequence of events. By an inexplicable lucky turn of events, every negative thing in McDonagh’s life (besides the cocaine addiction) is suddenly fixed and improved. The bad guys are caught or decide to go away, he wins all of his bets, his girlfriend, father and father’s girlfriend all end up out of rehab and clean, and his girlfriend – a hooker by trade – is now pregnant, presumably with McDonagh’s child. Does Herzog do all of this to more sharply contrast McDonagh’s continuing illegal habits? In other words, because Herzog has painted McDonagh as the anti-hero, do we then need to see him still driven by the drugs, even (especially) when everyone else is cured?
Nonetheless, every moment of Cage’s performance crackles (save for the expository, “No. We’ll all stick with our sparkling water,” line). The entire film is him – everything else is plain bricks and mortar as foundation. Luckily, that is more than good enough.