Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cage: Bad with a badge in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Pairing Nicolas Cage with wild man filmmaker Werner Herzog sounds enticing and unusual enough. But for their film to share the same name with the 1992 film starring another unhinged and talented actor (Harvey Keitel) and directed by another uncompromising filmmaker (Abel Ferrera) that only ups the ante.

The 92' movie was a dark, unsettling character study of an authority figure drowning himself in drugs, anonymous sex and reckless gambling. If he sees any redemption for himself, it's in solving the case of rape against a nun, who refuses to name her attackers because she has forgiven them. This turns the Keitel character on his heels and puts him through a hellish revelation that maybe he isn't beyond some sort of forgiveness, even if it's unorthodox.

Now in this 2009 film we are presented with a similar character and a similar set of circumstances. Cage is a cop addicted to crack, gambles beyond his means and he won't hesitate to assault an elderly woman to gain information about a murder witness. His character is in the middle of trying to solve the murder of a drug dealer and his wife and children while attempting manically to maintain his drug and betting habit. Like the Keitel lieutenant, he gets his dope from shaking down pushers and users, all the while desperately trying to go through the motions of his work. The Cage character shares a sympathetic soul mate and dope buddy in a hooker named Frankie (superbly acted by Eva Mendes)

The differences between the 92' and 09' films are vast. Ferrera's film was set in the mean streets of New York where running into any Martin Scorsese character wouldn't be a surprise. Herzog's film trades the ubiquitous Big Apple for the exotic but devastated Big Easy post Hurricane Katrina. Instead of Ferrara's use of Catholic iconography and guilt, Herzog gives us humidity and reptiles. The only real glimpse of any religion in this film is during a funeral scene, but otherwise the movie is without piety. Instead, there are bizarre, trippy closeups of iguanas and a dead alligator that signify Cage's druggy paranoia. Not to mention, his vision of a soul escaping the corpse of a mobster only to start break dancing. Only from Herzog I guess.

You probably are wondering if this all means that 'Port of Call' is a frantic dark comedy masquerading as a cop thriller/remake of a disturbing drama. Answer: relatively yes. The laughs are there to be sure, especially with scene devouring Cage in the lead, but there's certainly more beneath the surface. Many reviews are stating that this is Cage at his most over the top, but in my opinion, I don't really think it is. For very over the top Nicolas Cage see Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) or Face/Off (1997). Here, Cage shows some real depth beyond the gun waving and crack pipe smoking. Besides scenes where he seems beyond reprehensible we get some tender moments with him and the fragile Mendes character and humorous ones with a diverse gallery of characters: his partner (Val Kilmer) his beleaguered bookie (Brad Dourif) his boss (Vondie Curtis Hall) his alcoholic father (Tom Bower) and a drug kingpin (Alvin Xzibit Joiner) who may be behind the murders Cage's character is trying to solve and who may out slime the lieutenant.

Since many people are wondering if this movie is remake of the Ferrera film (it isn't) they may also be pondering which film is superior, but that would be pointless to determine. Both films stand alone and take the same themes and not even share other ones. The Keitel film had a strong theme of loneliness and self pity. The Cage film focuses more on a plot (will the drug related murder be solved?/will the lieutenant redeem himself?) without sidestepping the characters' development. I would say that this would make a great double bill displaying the talents and borderline insane imaginations of two filmmakers and two brave actors and the different interpretations of material that could have been made into lesser, more conventional films in the hands of the wrong filmmakers. The first Bad Lieutenant strongly focuses on pathos, the new one mixes that with off the cuff humor.

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