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An Arresting Bad Lieutenant Helps Telluride Experience Nicolas Cage Rage

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This is the third in a series of reports from the Telluride Film Festival. The event customarily held over the Labor Day weekend returned for its 36th season September 4-7. Coverage includes a quick look at a film screened the previous night and highlights of some of the group discussions and celebrity appearances.

Sunday’s Sneak Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Nu Image/Millennium Films), is also showing at the Venice Film Festival, where it is in competition for the Golden Lion, and also at the Toronto International Film Festival later this month.

Running time: 122 minutes.

What’s it all about?

Nicolas Cage has been a very, very bad lieutenant. And as a New Orleans homicide officer who dates a hooker, has a serious cocaine habit and is usually on the losing end when trying to cover the point spread, that’s very good news for film buffs waiting to experience another case of Cage Rage. Trying to solve the drug-related murder of a family of five from Senegal, this more-bad-cop-than-good-cop character thrives in a story where “sometimes people do things wrong or evil and get rewarded for it,” Cage said Sunday.

Don’t call this a remake, though. Other than the fact that the lead character is a damaged detective, this film has little resemblance to the Abel Ferrara-directed 1992 NC-17 movie that starred Harvey Keitel. Whereas the original was set in New York, Port of Call New Orleans gets deep down and dirty in “The Big Uneasy” following Hurricane Katrina. But it does have one thing in common with its predecessor – this isn’t family friendly, National Treasure-type fare.

Director: Werner Herzog (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Encounters at the End of the World, Rescue Dawn, The Wild Blue Yonder, Grizzly Man). A usual Telluride participant, Herzog arrived from Venice on Sunday night after the closing credits at the Galaxy, but wasn’t sure which of his 2009 films had just played. His My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, about a presentation of Sophocles’ Orestes that goes terribly wrong, was the nightcap of a Herzog doubleheader that was in the 11 p.m. late-show slot.

Herzog described how Cage first called him from Australia about the Bad Lieutenant project and said they should one day “meet over a bottle of whiskey.” They worked together quickly but intensively on the movie, usually finishing their shoots by 2 or 3 p.m., he said, adding, “There was never a loud word. There was work only in whispers.” Herzog also pointed out he had not seen the original.

Leading roles: Nicolas Cage (Terence McDonagh); Eva Mendes (Frankie Donnenfeld).

Also appearing: Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner (Big Fate); Val Kilmer (Stevie); Brad Dourif (Ned Schoenholtz); Jennifer Coolidge (Genevieve).

Telluride Take

After a less-than-stellar 2008 in terms of stars showing up in Telluride, the arrival of Cage on Sunday had the small mountain town buzzing. Big numbers were turned away from his hour interview in the downtown County Courthouse on Sunday afternoon and both Sunday showings of the wacky but fascinating Bad Lieutenant – including a morning Q&A – were sellouts. Cage didn’t disappoint, going into detail about: Herzog’s passion for iguanas (which play a pivotal part in the movie to the tune of Johnny Adams’ “Release Me”); his career awakening – seeing James Dean in East of Eden (“No other art form affected me the way that James Dean did …”); and the people he would still like to work with that include Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Nicholson. “All my favorite directors are dead,” he said. “I really wanted to work with (Stanley) Kubrick. … I was willing it to happen.”

Cage has made quite a career for himself in playing erratic characters (Matchstick Men, Vampire's Kiss) living on the edge. While his notorious movie meltdown scenes are legendary, he may even “over-the-top” himself in Bad Lieutenant. His eyes nearly pop out of his skull as a hunchbacked McDonagh, who takes pain medication for an injury yet still smokes crack, demands service at the pharmacy (“Whatever I take is prescription – except for the heroin.”) and goes to extreme measures to squeeze out information from a caretaker of an elderly woman who may be “suffering from a little dementia.” But during a Monday seminar in the park, Cage took exception to panel moderator Anne Thompson’s question to him about playing characters who are “over the top,” a reference Cage obviously abhors. “Look around. You can go to New York City, you can go to New Orleans … you can look at somebody in a market, and they’re doing something that is so impossibly – as you call it – ‘over the top’ that it would never survive any movie and never make it into any movie,” Cage said. “I see things in life that are completely ‘over the top.’ So it just doesn’t work for me.”

Kilmer sees little screen time as just another detective on the force, and Mendes (with Cage, left) is basically nothing more than satisfying eye candy, but the quirky performances by Coolidge, Dourif, and Xzibit are quite enjoyable. Coolidge, known more in recent years for racy roles as Stifler's Mom in the American Pie series, gets serious and is particularly impressive as McDonagh’s beer-swilling mother-in-law who says to him, “We’re birds of a feather. We both like our poison.”

Other Memorable Movie Line: “A man without a gun is not a man.” — McDonagh

What You Might Not Know

Actress Brenda Blethyn, in town with London River and on a Sunday panel with character actor Michael Lerner, also has a Cage connection. She gave what Lerner called a “ballsy performance” in Cage’s directorial debut, Sonny, a 2002 crime drama also set in New Orleans that co-starred Harry Dean Stanton and James Franco in the title role. “He totally understood all the pitfalls and all the difficulties an actor experiences, but he was also very keen to have us kind of work around, improvise around,” Blethyn said of Cage.

According to Cage, Herzog’s fixation with iguanas became an issue when the director asked the star to shoot a scene that completely focused on the large lizards. “I must have my iguanas!” Cage related while broadly impersonating the German director. After initially disregarding Herzog’s request, Cage came back the next day and said, “It would really be a shame if you never made another movie (because of this). I want you to get all the iguana time you need.”

Check out Telluride Film Festival photos, including Cage and Carey Mulligan, the breakout star of An Education.

Here’s the trailer for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans:

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About Michael

  • Fascinating series. I must say the opening line “Fearless film fanatics seeking a sneak peek” is genius. Say it 10 times, as fast as you can. The insight on Cage, the description of the town — it’s good, damn good. Enjoyed reading it all. Look forward to more.

  • Michael

    Thanks for the comments, Val. I just returned from Telluride, and plan to have one more story touching on Viggo Mortensen and The Road and tying up some other loose ends. Check out some of my Telluride Film Festival photos that include the Bad Lieutenant‘s Nicolas Cage and Carey Mulligan, the breakout star of An Education.