Nicolas Cage shows entirely too much restraint in taking on the title role in Werner Herzog's remake of Bad Lieutenant, titled The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans.
Cage plays a cop who has lost whatever moral compass he had — doing drugs; stealing drugs from junkies, dealers and even the evidence room at police headquarters; keeping a hooker as his mistress. Terence McDonagh is hurtling toward the abyss, a creep so drunk with power that he taunts a prisoner who is drowning in his cell as Hurricane Katrina floods the city.
"You want me to get wet on account of you?"
But Cage, who usually goes gonzo with gusto, underplays this monster. That spoils the fun.
The character, as originally conceived, is a real moustache-twirling villain — laughably evil. Cage dials him down so far that there are only isolated moments when McDonagh, hallucinating iguanas and seeing ghosts, reveals the depth of his madness.
"Shoot him again. His soul's still dancing."
McDonagh is a half-step ahead of his chief, his fellow cops, and assorted gamblers and thugs he has crossed. He's on a case, determined to solve a mass murder of illegal immigrants. If he can fend off his bookie (Brad Dourif), enforcers sent by a rich punk who likes to beat his hookers (Shea Whigham, hilarious) and make peace with the Southern Gothic family he grew up in, he'll be golden.
Lexington native Michael Shannon has a small role in the film.
Herzog captures the city as it is today, with much of the romance flooded right out of it. This Bad Lieutenant also has bad New Orleans accents all through the cast (nobody even attempts one).
Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant was played by Harvey Keitel as hilariously, jaw-droppingly evil — a guy barely functioning as he hurtled through the one case that might be his redemption.
Cage carries out many of the same crimes. But his choice to go subtle, for once, makes his journey a much duller, less redemptive one. This bad lieutenant simply isn't bad enough.