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Bad Lieutenants and Postapocalyptica: The Road and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Reviewed

The Road and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Reviewed

Top: Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes/ Bottom: Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee


Monday, December 14, 2009

By Steve Dollar

The Road
Directed by John Hillcoat

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Directed by Werner Herzog
(First Look)

If this year’s Academy Awards producers are foolhardy enough, they could score the show’s customary satirical opening musical bit to R.E.M.’s Nineties anthem “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Celebrating the post-apocalyptic jollies that destructo epics like Terminator Salvation, 2012 and The Book of Eli (due in January from the Hughes Brothers), the ceremony could acknowledge big-screen doom-and-gloom while glancing sideways at the recession and the rapid decline of studios like Miramax and the Weinstein Co.

Of course leave it to the Weinsteins to turn the death of everything into Oscar fodder. The awards-season release of The Road, delayed for a year, aims to render a property easily deemed unfilmable and unwatchable into a sad yet heartwarming story of a father and a son’s sustaining love for each other as they struggle to endure what looks like an endless nuclear winter. I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s novel, which takes place after a cataclysm that leaves America an ashen wasteland, populated by cannibal gangs and wary, ragged survivors slowly wasting away from starvation and disease. But even if the terrain is speculative fiction—easy to imagine as a Tarkovsky film, actually—it’s not far from one of McCarthy’s brutal Western blood-feasts. As such, the Australian John Hillcoat, director of the savage, neo-Peckinpah Western The Proposition, makes a good match. So does Viggo Mortensen, whose bone structure and soulful eyes bolster the air of haunted defiance required to carry what is, essentially, a two-character drama without a whole lot of rising action.

The Road is beautifully shot by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe in a desaturated palette of garbage-dump tones, which may also simply be part of the northern Pennsylvania landscape that once served George A. Romero’s zombie movies so well. And even the kid, Kodi Smit-McPhee, is good, if all too brave and adorable. All this, and The Road is still a drag. Whether Harvey and Co. softened Hillcoat’s original cut to make the material more palatable to the multiplex holiday crowd, or this is what the director came up with himself, it’s a schlump that flatlines its way to a heartbreaking-yet-hopeful four-hanky ending. There are some hairy interludes involving the cannibal militia (think Mad Max gone redneck), a genuinely Romero-esque freakout in a farmhouse basement, encounters with a desperate black thief (the only black guy in the movie) and a lonely old Robert Duvall, all meant to test the father’s wisdom regarding strangers against the boy’s humanist optimism. Mostly, though, there’s about as much action as My Dinner With Andre.

Sandbagged by its somber agenda, The Road could have used some of the vital apocalyptic juice that Werner Herzog swigs like root beer. The German director, notorious as much for his documentaries as his life-threatening five-film run in the Seventies and Eighties with madman actor Klaus Kinski, never quite got his juju back—narrative feature-wise—after the death of his “best fiend.” But Nicolas Cage, an actor whose juju evaporated years ago in a haze of shitty, multimillion-dollar paydays, proves nutty enough for the job in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. The ungainly title suggests a sequel to the 1992 Abel Ferrara cult classic, and the story still involves a drug-addled rogue cop up to his eyeballs in trouble.

The similarities end about there. Herzog wades deep into the swampy funk of New Orleans, which in this post-Katrina setting might as well be an end-of-the-world movie. He’s clearly turned on by the weirdness, the casual corruption, the gangsterism and the Southern Gothic outrageousness of the place. This is still the Amazon-trekking jungle rat who once declared America to be the most exotic place on earth. Such an attitude appears to give Cage permission to be his old, whacked-out self again. Aping a Richard III slump, the actor plays a once-decent cop whose back injury has led to an addiction to painkillers. And cocaine. And heroin. And everything else. He’s got a high-end hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes), a gambling debt, and a symbiotic relationship with a drug kingpin (Xzibit) he may or may not be setting up.

The film is 90 percent riffage: Cage freestyling raps, threatening elderly invalids by cutting off their oxygen, using his badge to harass wayward party girls into giving him coke and blowjobs, breaking out his “lucky crack pipe” and going to that secret place that Dennis Hopper went to in Blue Velvet. Throw in some gratuitous iguana-cam, terrific casting of oddball character parts (Brad Dourif! Jennifer Coolidge!), and pulpy one-liners like “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” and it’s all as hard to resist as one of Cage’s on-screen coke binges.




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