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Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans

Werner Herzog can do anything he feels like, and if you want proof, here’s some more.

Bad Lieutenant POCNO is only tenuously associated with Abel Ferrara’s Harvey Keitel vehicle. There, religious overtones lend (or detract, depending on your take) another dimension to the film as an essay on the ruination of human civilisation. Our devolving protagonist pretty much embraces hell as a coping mechanism, a means to a tortured end.

Herzog is not as downbeat, but he is as empathetic as Ferrara in that he accepts the corruption of Cage’s bad lieutenant as one manifestation of a survival instinct amidst chaos.

Rather than being a merely unflinching portrayal of hopelessness a la the Ferrara film, there is much laughter in the dark here, some of which revels in the extremes catalogued. Herzog is not interested in defeat and pointless savagery – he is interested in a human response to horror and impinging, glaring mortality. And he has great, grim fun in letting Nicolas Cage tear up the screen as a means of embodying a perfectly reasonable and hallucinatory madness amidst the wreckage of New Orleans.

Cage, from the outset, is off-kilter and keyed up to perpetual abrasion, nursing a call-of-duty inflicted back injury with pills aplenty and a gambling addiction to boot. He is kinetic disquiet and a post-Katrina short-fuse dancing around flames. His partner, Val Kilmer, suitably grumpy, is a jock- gone-to-seed type, XL rumpled suit and poised to lurch at anyone he feels like. Things are such that Cage keeps him in check, despite being a seething mess and irked to the point of restlessness. The ‘law’ here is as capricious and unpredictable as everything else, from second to second. He bribes a young girl for sex as her boyfriend looks on, setting a tone Herzog maintains throughout.

In any case, Cage (who within minutes is impossible to take your eyes off) is detailed with nailing drug dealing prime suspect Xzibit of the murder of five Senegalese immigrants. Cue Cage emerging from a house with an associate of the suspect, breaking into a chuckle and muttering: ‘I love it…I just love it!’

He’s soon stepping in and out of various scenarios, occasionally accompanied by hallucinated Iguanas that mark his encroaching meltdown. There is much Lynch in this motif – in one scene an Iguana fills the screen as a delighted, onlooking Cage smiles in recognition. Things are unravelling but Cage is far too gone/amused to worry. And so are we: we’re egging the imminent lunacy on as we know it means more scope for an unhinged Cage to luxuriate in the glee of anarchy. There are plenty more examples of Cage letting his hair down to hilarious, frenzied effect. One of cinema’s more indelible moments in recent years involves a rapt Cage enjoying a near-dead soul breakdancing – seriously. It’s his best performance in years and is a manic gift of improvisation, brilliance and freewheeling abandon – he’s clearly, though, having far too much fun for those doling out awards. Shame.

There’s great support from Xzibit, Eva Mendes (as his prostitute girlfriend in peril) and, in particular, Brad Dourif as his world-weary bookie. They’re all wise enough to get out of Cage’s way, though, as he steals virtually every scene and then sets it on fire. Please, Mr Cage, more of this and less of turgid marquee rubbish.

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