Tag Archives: Bad Lieutenant

Guarding Tess (1994)

14 Mar

Emasculated Cage throws a chair

Before watching Guarding Tess we believed that a Nicolas Cage film couldn’t be boring*, but Guarding Tess feels as though it was shot on a succession of rainy Sunday afternoons, with a cast listlessly doing their homework the day before it’s due in…. It feels as though it was written by a white-collar civil servant as he died stuck in an lift, in blood, on the walls. Out of respect they filmed it. To capture the feeling of Guarding Tess without having to watch it, we at ‘Cage Wisdom’ advise you to press play on the video link below and feel the wave of melancholy wash over you as you read the following…

As immediately discernible from the dvd box, in which a suited Cage stands serious behind a wry and ironical looking older stateswoman, Guarding Tess follows some days in the life of secret service agent Doug Chesnic (Cage) in his job of guarding former First Lady of the U.S. of A. Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine). Before we sat down to watch Guarding Tess, we made a few predictions for this “comedy beyond the call of duty”:

    1. There will be a scene where Cage has to hold Tess’s handbag in a public place, to emasculating effect.
    2. Tess will make innuendos not befitting a woman of her age.
    3. There will be a shopping sequence, to emasculating effect.
    4. They will walk dogs, and people shall trip over leads.
    5. Tess will accidentally hit Doug in the balls with a hand-bag.
    6.There will be a serious bit at the end where she actually gets kidnapped by terrorists.
    And most importantly…
    8. She’ll teach him how to let down his crew-cut and have a good time.

In the event of the film, only 3, 6 and 8 turned out to be true… although to call what transpired the “good time” anticipated by the overly-optimistic point 8, would be to guild a very boring lilly.

It is a very boring film. At one point we see a two second close-up of a document printing, and the script has the unfortunate habit of having Cage repeat exactly what’s been said in the previous scene to a different character, perhaps to give the audience a chance to reflect on the good times they’ve had. We cut from a comedy golf scene, shot on some desolate windswept moor, to Cage in a cafe aggressively repeating the dialogue to a cornered bystander:  ‘And then I said – I’m not getting your goddamn ball!’,  ‘Uh-huh’ replies the extra resignedly, as they help themselves to another coffee.

The Face of the Audience

Guarding Tess is the American equivalent of the British heritage film, where tiny dramas of social impropriety nudge the narrative forward like a kindly but quietly insistent teacher softly pushing a reticient young actor onto stage. At 25 minutes into the film’s running time the most dramatic incident had been Nic’s ill-judged decapitation of a flower. I employ the word ‘decapitation’ to lend the moment the excitement worthy of it. You see, Nic takes a rose – a rose, that most beautiful of flowers, carrying with it the Heavenly scene of Romeo and Juliet and the musk of those historical houses of York and Lancaster – and audaciously removes its head – that most essential part of the rose – and has the audacity, the waggish audacity, to place it within his own lapel, in obscene defiance of the fact that the rose’s owner – former First Lady no less and furthermore his employer – did not (absolutely, unequivocably not) instruct him to do so. Oh how we laugh at this mad comedy of errors while silently assenting that the rose should have been left in its place. When later in the film Nic woke the ex-First Lady of the U. S. of A. while she indulged her God-given right to a snooze at the opera (but oh how funny of her; how perfectly old-lady-like) I was so appalled I vomited all over my eiderdown.

Guarding Tess continued at this pace to a degree that was almost aggressively boring, as though it were a maiden-aunt or bearded pedagogue chastising us for wanting to play our sexy violent computer games and not being content with our cup-and-ball instead.*

I work in insurance and in my spare time compose hundred-page excel spreadsheets of the words most commonly appearing on ceefax and yet my life is still more exciting that Guarding Tess. It doesn’t even have the doily-dress delights of a proper heritage film where you get to watch Helena-Bonham Carter standing next to furnishings – everyone wears grey, has grey skin and lives in a kind of fortified castle, where esteemed and respected British actors are forced to make sandwiches and provide unfunny buffoonish diversions.

Richard Griffiths, Yes, Richard Griffiths himself sits glumly to one side in the kitchen, the “hub” of the Guarding Tess action, trying not to look the camera in the eye while an under-appreciated chef cooks constant broth for no-one. While it might seem unfair to famous and lauded actor Richard Griffiths to mention that he was in the film Guarding Tess, I do so because people have got into the habit recently of pinning all bad film choices on Nicolas Cage’s lapel. Sure, Cage is in bad films. But you know who else is in bad films? Richard Griffiths. Tom Hanks is also in bad films. Tom ‘the ham’ Hanks was in a film called The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), rivaling any of Cage’s output for hokyness – and yet it’s Cage who must be martyred for the cinematic sins of all actors. I’m not saying Nicolas Cage is Jesus, that’s for other people to say

Cage does what he can with the wet sack of Sunday afternoons he’s given. For most of the film his acting is muffled, as if he’s in a library, waiting for the Queen to arrive – but sometimes it all gets too much and he just has to shout out a line with erratic ferocity. This culminates in a bizarre scene in which Cage pre-cogs his performance in Bad Lieutenant by 15 years, and shoots the toes off a chauffeur. ‘Where’s the first lady? Where is she?!’ Doug Chesnic demands, as the chauffeur lies in hospital, gun pressed to his little toe. Another Secret Special Agent looks on with faint disgust, as if Cage is a tolerated school friend, too enthusiastic about pulling the legs off a spider.

But for Doug Chesnic this is a victorious moment. Tess always made him leave his gun outside the door when he came knocking, but now the proud gun has been proved right all along. If Chesnic did not have the maverick sensibilities needed to torture a chauffeur as he lies in a hospital bed, Tess could not be victoriously rescued from the hillbilly’s hidey-hole where she’s been stowed away. And if Chesnic couldn’t roll up his shirtsleeves, grab a spade and start manfully digging the former first lady out of a hole, he would be doomed to a life of emasculated chair-breaking (and probably bicycle-wheeling too).

Thank God for the gun, as Cage proves once again that he’s no-one’s fancy man. Grab your clapping-hand hats everyone, it’s going to be all-right.

Such a thing as I could never imagine in my most lucid daydreams

* I gently remind the audience at this juncture that Adam was absent while I was reviewing The Boy in Blue.

*At this juncture I am obliged to note that Jay much prefers a cup-and-ball to sexy violent computer games.


Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

10 Oct

Caption competition in the comments section

An ‘n’ can often make a big difference. If you chuck an ‘n’ onto a beaver dam, you land yourself inadvertently with a PG-13 rating for your woodland wildlife documentary. There are more examples… obviously. The one we are concerned with here is the ‘n’ that separates “Hi” McDunnough from Raising Arizona and Terrence McDonagh from… admittedly there is more than an ‘n’ that is changed here, but you must admit that the ‘n’ is the crux of the matter.

Basically, these are two pretty different films with two pretty differently named protagonists. In this film Cage is acting at the other end of the justice system, not a criminal but a cop, albeit one soured and soused by back pain and illegal medication to keep said back pain in check. While in Raising Arizona Cage was a slouchy pipe-cleaner cat, here he is as tense as a man made of beef jerky on a bad day. A hitherto unseen vein on Cage’s temple – the shape of a divining rod – throbs, not when Cage is near a body of water, but all the time he is on screen. He acts so hard he is in danger of damaging himself and others. When he breaks face into a devil-may-care smile, it’s a bit of a shock and this smile is used twice at epiphanic moments in the film. The one that ends the film is a shot directly out of Wes Anderson (symmetrical shot of two people looking in the direction of the camera) as a stingray glides serenely past the back of his head, Cage sits back against the glass wall of an aquarium tank. It is an image of calm that sits curiously at the end of a noisy, silly, disjunctive film.

In the last review we saw that Cage under the direction of an aueteurist directorial team gave, at an early point in his career, a performance that, while enjoyable, could not be separated from the texture of the film. He played a character that belonged to the Coens, not to himself. Herzog is a director similarly identifiable by last name alone, but he is also a director famed for giving mad, expressive freedom to his lead actors, namely the late Klaus Kinski. Often the skill of Herzog’s direction lies in poking his actors, like tormented pets, into a suitable frenzy and then stepping back and turning on the camera. In Bad Lieuenant Herzog has elicited an intense and often startling performance from Cage, allowing him to indulge Cageisms such as laughing whenever he hears of a drug dealer named ‘G’ and a moment where a door swings closed to show Cage, previously hidden, now revealed shaving menacingly as a sort of domestic-routine-based threat.

I mentioned Herzog prodding his actors into frenzy like maltreated pets, since Herzog has a “curious” relationship with animals… they are often favoured by his camera, even while they undergo his “prodding”. Unlike in Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) no monkeys are hurled, but Cage does give an iguana a nasty prod, a fish is kept in an obviously undersized glass and an alligator hopefully doesn’t have its real intestines spilled upon the tarmac. Really, please don’t let those intestines have been real. The animal sequences are often long and inscrutable, playing an unspecified part in McDonagh’s drug induced delusions and mesmerizing in their insistence and length. Herzog often uses animals to signify the chaotic, amoral world of nature that humans occupy, despite their mini-bars and digital watches. Cage is certainly animalistic here, his laughs are like no laughs I have ever heard before! They are manic, yowling things like a broken clown might make or a fox screaming in the night.

Yet despite the madness, I found the performance, which other critics have described as “hammy”, very convincing. Cage, as ever and I love him for it, attacks the role with an earnest sincerity, rather than with ironic distance. Roger Ebert wonderfully encapsulated this tendency of Cage, thus:

“He always seems so earnest. However improbable his character, he never winks at the audience. He is committed to the character with every atom and plays him as if he were him.”

This committment shows itself in Cage’s mighty hump which he cultivates over the course of the film. It starts manifested in a slight hobble and a raised shoulder, but ends with an ‘Igor’ style slant worthy of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). I do not think Cage needed padding or a cardboard back to achieve this, either.

It is this commitment which means that Cage’s performance here can be at once both weighty and fleet-footed. It is a fun performance in an often daft film, but it never felt like self-parody to me, as others have asserted. At one point, when faced with a dangerous run-in with the mafia, a member of the gang Cage has fallen in with, shoots down the Don. “Shoot him again” Cage cries, “his soul’s still dancing!” Sure enough, the soul break-dances free and agile next to the leaden body. In his role as Terrence McDonagh Cage plays a medicated man, carrying with him the burden of the flesh, but with a lightness of touch, which lifts the film into a surprisingly playful arena.