In Theaters: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Movieline Score:

Somewhere in the middle of Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, police lieutenant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) bets on New Orleans and loses big. Cage, looking like he wandered off the set of The Shield and humped all the way to Louisiana in a bad suit and a mescaline haze, is in the grip of several addictions and neck-deep in various permutations of shit, but he just can't stop betting on the Saints. Over the course of this punchy, seriously strange (if less seriously essential) film, McDonagh becomes an extension of the blighted port -- one of the friendliest cities in the country and also the most violent -- making up rules as he goes along, incandescently self-destructive yet plainly bent on his own survival.

"They just like to fuck with you," my friend assured me a couple of weeks ago, after we were pulled over by the NOPD and were sitting quietly in her car, waiting for the officers to approach. There were no plates on her car, and she didn't have a license, so I was pretty sure we were both going to jail, but the officers just shone their flashlights in our faces and waved us on, satisfied with the shrink-wrapped plate she pulled from the back seat. "They want you to think they're watching. If we were black, though, it would be a different story." The rules are relative -- or simply capricious -- in Bad Lieutenant as well: In the opening scene we see the flooded, sunken holding cell of a jail, circa August 2005; McDonagh's partner (played by Val Kilmer) suggests leaving the lone prisoner trapped inside to die, but McDonagh, in an act of valor that leads pretty directly to his descent into drug addiction and its attendant felonies, dives down to save him.

Back in the resplendently weird form of films like Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart, Cage's sad old lady face and baggy, loose-limbed depravity suit the role well, although the latter is slightly modified by a scoliosis hitch in his shoulder, the result of the back injury sustained while saving prisoner X. The injury, however, doesn't interfere with his ability to bone a young woman in a parking lot while her boyfriend is forced to look on, an indignity added to having just been shaken down by a cop for the drugs he was holding. Just who is the crack whore is the questioned begged by this early, over-the-top sequence: everything's topsy-turvy, no one knows their place anymore, if they ever did, and no one really cares.

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