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Cinema Signal: Green light! A highly original take on a corrupt detective. Worth seeing.

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. "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans"

From one of the obscure auteurs of international filmmaking, a man who once thought a good idea of a plot was moving a ship over a mountain in the Peruvian jungle in order to build an opera house ("Fitzcarraldo"); who progressed to mockumentaries on minuscule budgets ("Incident at Loch Ness") and who made a documentary of a bear-obsessed maniac in "Grizzly Man," this may not be the first film the Germany-born writer-director's made that's this close to mainstream, but it's the first that I've seen. I'm left with the question, "Werner, where have ye been?"

There's no question that Herzog dances to his own filmmaking beat, but this freshness in his output may indicate the influence of living in Los Angeles for the past few years.

Working from a noirish screenplay by William M. Finkelstein ("NYPD Blue"), he has set the stage for, among other things, one of the guttiest and grittiest performances by Nicolas Cage whose work ethic is second to none on the A-list. Happily, for this Herzog tune, Cage takes a vacation from sci-fi and other fantasy to remind us of his down-to-earth contact with the world, and the return to reality and a dark normality produces his best work since "Leaving Las Vegas," for which he won his first (of two) Oscars, in 1996.

Ravaged by pain because of a bad back, the bad lieutenant walks lopsided, suffering from the kind of affliction that rings bells of familiarity and sympathy to a lot of us. Escape from physical pain also suggests where he might have picked up his taste for every drug known to man and why the precinct's property room is his favorite place on earth or, at least, in New Orleans following the big inundation by a lady called Katrina.

Given all his faults, which clearly includes corruption with a side of conspiracy when the situation calls for it, the thing that cements him into a position of authority and respect among his peers is the fact that he's a highly skilled detective--the best his captain's got. In two brief sequences that are a hilarious touch of satiric humor, his advancement within the force, by which the story is sandwiched, tells us so.

His relationship with his prostitute girlfriend Frankie Donnenfeld (Eva Mendes) is weird by any normal moral yardsticks, but there's nothing wrong with his taste. Frankie's a high class working girl with all the pragmatism of the streets who picks up high-paying jobs in and around the city. At first, you're made to think the bond between the prosty and the cop is based on his supplying her with a steady fix and her paying him back with the sweets of her profession. But, it doesn't take long to detect that it goes much deeper than that. Drugs and sex are the superficial shell protecting the yolk of adult love that these two, without artifice or glorification, hold inside.

As for Mendes, I've never enjoyed her beauty and screen presence more.

By now, you're getting the impression that Herzog has a fine taste for casting a piece of work like this, and it's true. The depth of his vision in this critical area of filmmaking includes the always fetching but not always working Fairuza Balk as another habitue of dark places who can help the sleuth find his criminals after a horrendous slaughter of innocents. There's Brad Dourif as the sour Ned Schoenholtz, a bookie in a well-written part.

Add the color of such gems as Val Kilmer (sidekick cop Stevie Pruit), Michael Shannon (cop Mundt), Shawn Hatosy (cop Armand Benoit), and Zxibit (sociopath Big Fate) and you have the highlights of a fine range of talent that add depth to the canvas of moral ambiguity.

Not that most of it is ambiguous. What is, is the central character who, even as we might be reviled by his addiction and looseness with the law, we wouldn't turn away for an instant for fear of missing a good deed or a misdeed. There's much to be said for a movie that portrays as much imperfection as life itself and, clearly, Herzog and company have a ball in creating it for us.

And, yes, it must be said that the auteur leaves a few trademark droppings along the way. There's a weird sequence in which he props up a real, live iguana in the extremely close foreground of a shot that leaves you wondering if some four-year-old got onto the set. (But, no, it's a suddenly subjective shot, framing a very high lieutenant and his vision during a long stakeout).

And, another, when he has one character, after a gun battle, asking his fellow shooter to blast one of the guys on the floor again. His spirit is still dancing, he says and, sure enough, Herzog provides another surreal moment with a street dancer, representing a corpse's spirit, going through an intricate set of moves, whirling, twisting and gyrating to a beat, like the spasms of near--but not quite final--death. These are signs of a singular visionary behind the camera, and only such a one as the guy who moved a ship over a mountain could get away with such ghost images from his own plane of reality.

So original. So worth seeing. Where's Klaus Kinski when you need him?

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes
The bad leiutenant and his bad girlfriend understand each other like few people do.

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