It’s been a while since I’ve proudly identified myself as a Nicolas Cage fan.
But I’m saying it here, and I’m saying it’s because of all the years in the wilderness, not in spite of it.
I’ve been there from the start. 13-year-old me saw “Valley Girl” in the theater. Twice, courtesy the movie theater usher older brother of a friend. 14-year-old-me took two different girls to see “Racing With The Moon” when it played, and both times, I got to touch a boob as a direct result of the movie, which automatically made it better-than-almost-any-other-movie-EVER.
Cage was a guy who was part of a young group of actors who I looked up to, who felt like the first people from my generation to break through in movies in any way. When I saw “Birdy” in 1984, the same year “Racing With The Moon” and “The Cotton Club” came out, I flipped. I got evangelical about that film for a while. LOVED it. In two short years, Cage had been in three films I considered significant plus a handful of others, so when he sort of disappeared for a few years, it was confounding.
Then came the one-two punch that made me rank Cage as perhaps the most eccentric and hilarious actor of his peer group, “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “Raising Arizona.” 1986 and 1987. And as far as I was concerned, that was it. Cage was amazing, fearless, insane, inventive and always worth watching.
So of course nobody knew what to do with him.
With the exception of “Moonstruck” and “Wild At Heart,” the years from 1988 to 1995 were rough. There’s a whooooooole lot of “Zandalee” and “Fire Birds” going on, an uncomfortable amount of “It Can Happen To You” and “Guarding Tess.” There are performances in there where Cage is obviously trying some interesting things, and he plays moments that make it worth seeing the film once, but even his crazy energy doesn’t really make “Vampire’s Kiss” good, and can only elevate “Kiss Of Death” so far.
“Leaving Las Vegas” did two things to Cage: it proved that when he wants to, he can focus all of the eccentricity to the same sort of electrifying high-wire act as “Raising Arizona” still. He can summon up these characters who are strange and freaky and pure pleasure to watch. And in doing so, the film won Cage his Oscar, which ruined him because it raised his price, and he started making blockbusters, and he got into the business of getting P A I D, and he never really has to do anything interesting if he doesn’t feel like it. He can just show up and be Nicolas Cage with different hair, and then walk through one of these movies. He’s good enough that the boredom seems writ large to me. He can play anything a “National Treasure” or a “Next” throws at him, and that’s the problem. Unless you give him something to do, you’re wasting him. He’s a race horse. He’s a lunatic. He’s someone you take off the leash, not someone you use to sell Happy Meals.
The last time Nicolas Cage was as good as he is in Werner Herzog’s bonkers new movie “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” was when he made “Adaptation” with Spike Jonze. Whatever alchemy happened between him and Herzog, it’s magic, and Cage is alternately hilarious, touching, and just plain weird in the film. His character, Terence McDonagh, is a moderately scummy cop who is working N’awlins when Katrina hits. He and his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) check out a jail to make sure no one got left behind. They find one prisoner, left in his first floor cell on purpose as the waters rise. Terence jumps in to help…
… and winds up a shuffling, cranky, physically rigid cop with a taste for opiates, his long recovery from the injury to his leg and back having left him with a limp and a wicked case of all-purpose addiction. He is out of control, and he most notable manifestation of that is his relationship with Frankie (Eva Mendes), a hooker who is just as crazy for the stashes he swipes as he is. They snort together, then snort each other, one addiction inciting the next. It’s a rollercoaster ride by design. They both love the rush and the danger, and they connect on some primal level of recognition.
They’re going down.. but they’re going down together.
Terence has a father (Tom Bower, one of those character actor vets who you’ll know the moment you see him) who is wrestling with his own drinking problem, and his dad’s girlfriend Genevieve (Jennifer Coolidge with the crazy dialed way back and the sad dialed way up) has her chemical relationships. In the world of this particular story, this corner of Hell that Herzog’s carved out, everyone’s addicted to something, and it’s just a matter of degrees. Terence isn’t really that far over the line. It’s just degrees. Everybody’s using something to get over, and the problem with Terence is that he gets more and more self-destructive the more he’s using. He’s one of those guys, the ones who ruin every party they go to, the ones who make that scene in the restaurant, the ones who pick a fight on the sidewalk in front of the movie theater. And he doesn’t care anymore, which makes him scary. Someone who truly doesn’t care is capable of anything, and as the film wears on, that’s exactly what Cage delivers. Anything. He throws it all into the performance, and it’s rich and overcooked and suitably crazy, which then spreads to pretty much everything around him.
Because so much of the film is “Oh, no, he’s not really going to do that OH YES HE IS!” fun, it’s impressive when Herzog suddenly starts taking it all seriously. That’s where Eva Mendes gets to do her best work, and she’s quite good in the film. She is warm and sensual and appealing, while still revealing the vulnerability of the high-functioning junkie just under the surface. Her journey in the film may not be the freshest material of all time, but she proves to me here that she is an untapped resource as an actor so far, and that she’s capable of a lot more than she’s been given to do.
Val Kilmer shows up in every one of his scenes ready to play, ready to match Cage, crazy for crazy, like he knows this is the moment where he’s got everyone’s attention again if people turn out to see the freak show, and he’s got to make it count. He’s in his own movie, basically, and it just intersects with the Nic Cage movie a few times, in very oblique ways. I’d like to see Herzog make a film about everything that Stevie was going through while Terence was having his meltdown. A sort of “equal” instead of a sequel.
I don’t think Werner Herzog is infallible. I think he makes his fair share of terrible films. But he’s had a rennaisance recently, and people are actually seeing his movies again. “Grizzly Man” is a strong contender for my best-of-the-decade list which is coming up soon, and people saw that film. It was a hit. I would love it if “Bad Lieutenant” was a hit for him as well. I’d love it if he was rewarded for something as loose and on-the-fly as this, because it might encourage him to continue doing this in the future. The film makes good use of its New Orleans setting, and I got a sense of Katrina like a shadow over everything. Werner doesn’t use it for any cheap effect, either. It’s just part of the texture of this world, and Cage is struggling to get back to right, just like the city around him, both of them wounded, possibly in pain forever.
You may have to search for this one. Distributor First Look doesn’t have a war chest full of “Twilight” money they can spend on advertising, so they’re counting on select bookings and the goodwill of critics seeing it. Make the effort. Get out there and see it.
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