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Ten Word or Less Review: Don’t forget to bring your lucky crack pipe!

Nicholas Cage is a master two things, buggy eccentricity and rote boredom.  It’s how he does the job these days.  I’m not really sure he’s an actor anymore so much as just a walking performance piece in some films and a guy cashing fat Disney checks in others.  How he feels about his craft and the state of his career may not be knowable without tying the man down to a chair and forcing it out of him.  Can you torture a man who once willingly ate a cockroach for a nothing movie?  Anyway, we can be sure of one thing, he likely reveled in the warped notes his character hits over the course of “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.”

A soul mate of sorts to the original 1993 “Bad Lieutenant” by Abel Ferrara, “New Orleans” follows Cage’s drug abusing Lieutenant as he scores dope, snorts blow, minds his hooker/girlfriend Eva Mendes, bets money he doesn’t have on football games he won’t win, arranges thefts from the evidence locker and so on and so forth.  Where as the original “Lieutenant” was a minimal, bleak, one note performance piece for star Harvey Keitel, “New Orleans” makes efforts to be a more complete package with an actual plot, characters and less pretentious purpose.  Cage’s Lieutenant isn’t just thrust at the viewer as a blow snorting cop with no conscience.  He’s an asshole of a cop to be sure, but one who’s been injured on the job, whose pain management techniques have escalated from prescribed Vicodin use to any narcotic he can score under any circumstance.  As all his vices begin to spiral out of control, he lands a quadruple homicide of Africans in the ghetto and is assigned to bring down the drug trafficker that killed them.  As his investigation evolves he becomes increasingly amoral about getting the job done, smoking crack at opportune times, endangering witnesses, cutting off an old lady’s oxygen as he threatens to blow her head off with his wildly over sized, Callahan-esque .45.

Cage is the showpiece here.  Not many can do nut job, schizoid quirks like he can and sell it as well.  His character gradually clinches up into a ball of nerves that might do anything to anyone.  The film itself though plays things safe to some extent.  Cage’s Lieutenant never goes after anyone or does something to someone where some sense of justice or justification isn’t in his actions.  Even when he cuts off the old lady’s oxygen we’re still in his corner.  This ‘wild/play it safe’ attitude keeps things from ever feeling serious or truly dangerous.  “New Orleans” is at its core a straight cop drama played for twisted laughs and injected with moments of surrealism, moments typically involving reptiles.

Directed by Werner Herzog, the legendary German still feels a little non-descript dealing with non-documentary material.  He keeps things moving along and lets Cage do his thing, but his presence behind the camera doesn’t add much.  The style of the film doesn’t draw attention to itself, except when lizards are in the scene.  He seems to have deemphasized a lot of characters and overall arch so as to not get in the way of Cage and his three ring circus of insanity.  Perhaps to do more on his part would’ve overwhelmed everything and caused a meltdown.

As Cage cuts each scene with his knife and fork and chews it down, a pretty decent supporting cast fails to poke through with much of note.  Val Kilmer is sadly cast as an underused straight man to Cage’s loopy, drug vacuum.  It should be a felony to cast Kilmer in such an under used, do nothing role.  Surprising though is Eva Mendes.  A model so gorgeous her presence in movies was a forgone conclusion, she’s to date been a walking forgettable from one movie to another.  Here she manages some chemistry with Cage.  How they brought it to the surface is anyone’s guess.  I would venture they spent the time in between takes watching their scenes in “Ghost Rider” and then did the exact opposite.

As it finishes, “New Orleans” wisely avoids being a carbon copy of the original “Lieutenant.”  That picture’s bleak and cynical ending would feel at odds with this grim but comical tale.  Cage’s character may be detestable, but there has to be more than a simple, morally justified death at story’s end.  To force such an ending as the original would be asking the viewer to inject a deeper meaning here than is really needed.   Herzog and his fellow writers find a nice, non-annoying note of cohesive ambiguity to end things.  Fans of bugnut, loco cinema will get a perverse, albeit minor, thrill watching this incarnation of “Bad Lieutenant.”  As offbeat and weird as it advertised itself as being, it didn’t reach the stratosphere of quirk classics it was aiming for.  But in a shallow cineplex full of mega-budget do-gooders, it’s a fun nugget of pseudo-perversity.

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