Thursday, April 08, 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Grade B

Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans (2009)
Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer. Director Werner Herzog.

This remake of the 1992 picture starring Harvey Keitel is almost as good, thanks to extraordinary acting by Cage. He has genuinely acted before in movies, but when he gets into those long spells of Disney things, one tends to forget what real talent he has. His acting in this story is fantastic, especially in the second half after the movie finds its feet.

Cage is a dirty N.O. cop with a spinal injury that leaves him constantly in pain, so he becomes addicted to painkillers, and to cocaine, although to my knowledge, coke does not help at all with pain, might even make it worse. Pharmacology aside, Cage does a convincing job of walking, standing, and moving like a man in pain.

That would be achievement enough. But he also manages to convey vividly the sense of a man constantly on the edge of flipping out; someone who is just barely under control in the social context. He delivers his lines in the same way, dripping with inner torment. It is an amazing performance, well worth seeing.

That aside, however, there is not much to recommend the movie. He is a typical bad cop, similar to every other gritty, urban bad cop movie you have ever seen. He steals dope from the property room, shakes down club-goers for their dope, bullies suspects, abuses his badge and authority to get sex, and all the rest. In the Keitel original, the character was more believable as a burned out, borderline psychopath who was in the end redeemed (partially), by showing a spark of conscience and sense of justice. It was a worthwhile human drama.

Cage’s cop is cartoony and does not hold together well. His gambling habit does not really fit with his character and is not well-integrated into the story. It seems to be there just because it was a there in the original. His romantic relationship with Mendez is flat. And the ending is just stupid, where suddenly in the last 5 minutes he wins enough to cancel all his gambling debts, the mobsters lay off, charges are dropped, he is promoted to captain, his back pain is apparently gone, he has a smile on his face, a happy family, and he and his girl and his father too, have all gone through rehab and celebrate by drinking San Pellegrino. Right. That is Hollywood showing its most cynical contempt for audiences, and it just ruins whatever story they had going. I’m surprised that a big name director like Herzog could not prevent such atrocity.

Unless it was supposed to be ironic, a drug-induced delusion of Cage’s character. There are a couple of surrealist scenes in the movie involving singing iguanas and a dancing dead man which are complete non-sequiturs and can only be interpreted as representing drug-induced hallucination even though that is not consistent with the character's state. That is a generous interpretation of the bizarre ending.

Val Kilmer doesn’t do anything in this movie, but he has lost weight, so that’s something. And the title suffix “Port of Call-New Orleans” is meaningless. The story is nominally set in New Orleans but you would never know it from the cinematography, and there is no nautical theme in the movie, and the location it is not important to the story anyway. However, in sum, you have to see both versions, the original with Keitel for his acting and for the tight story with meaningful character arc; and this remake just because of Cage’s amazing acting.

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