‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ movie review: a Herzog & Cage gem

Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant, an NC-17-rated 1993 film that Martin Scorsese chose as the best of the 1990s, was just about the last film you’d expect to see a sequel to (or a remake of, or whatever the producers had in mind here). Apart from the subject matter, it wasn’t a terribly successful movie, and remains largely unknown outside of cineastes, not the most likely of targets to cash in on brand recognition.

It would be easy to dismiss the sequel on sight, but when you hear it’s directed by Werner Herzog – who has directed masterpieces (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo) and more recently, acclaimed documentaries (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World) – your interest is piqued.

And, no surprise, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (despite that awful stumbling block of a title) is a great movie. But I was surprised at just how great it is: hugely entertaining, unexpectedly funny, with a fully wigged-out Nicolas Cage performance that mesmerizes. It could’ve been Herzog’s most commercial film yet, but it’ll settle for cult classic status.

A comparison to the original – which starred Harvey Keitel in the title role – is pointless, as there’s almost no connection here outside the theme, that the lead character is quite literally a bad lieutenant.

A gambling addict, a drug addict, a sex addict, using his status to elevate himself above the law and feed his addictions. Herzog claims to have not seen the Ferrera film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if screenwriter William M. Finkelstein hadn’t seen it either. They were given the title, and ran with it.

Cage is Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, who begins the film by rescuing a trapped convict during the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. See, he’s not all that bad. And the drug addiction, that’s just due his persistent back pain.

He’s investigating a drug-related homicide, which he couldn’t be less interested in; he knows who did it, all this evidence gathering and witness protecting is just getting in the way of having a good time. “What are these fuckin’ iguanas doing on my coffee table?”

Other story threads: he beats up a violent customer of his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), who sends some mafia goons out to harass him. He grows deeper and deeper into debt with his bookie (Brad Dourif), who comes to collect at the police station. A harassment claim is filed against him by the elderly grandmother (Irma P. Hall) of a witness (Denzel Whitaker) he lost and spectacularly failed to track down.

This isn’t a film that focuses on plot, but these threads come together brilliantly by the end, in pitch-black comedy-tragedy. Finkelstein was a TV writer for crime dramas like L.A. Law and Law and Order, and the Television A-story, B-story, C-story merges quite wonderfully here with a more traditional three-act structure, along with a lot of diversions to side characters, like Terence’s recovering-alcoholic father (Tom Bower), his step-mother (Jennifer Coolidge), his partner (Val Kilmer), and a sometimes-lover (Fairuza Balk).

Cage, though, is the star of the show. He makes a lot of bad movies (though the real bad ones can still be plenty entertaining – just see The Wicker Man), and is deservingly taken to task for them,  but in the hands of the right director he can have a wonderful – and irreplaceable – screen presence. I’m thinking of movies like Wild at Heart (David Lynch), Raising Arizona (Coen Brothers), Kiss of Death (Barbet Schroeder), or Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis), which won him an Oscar.

Cage has become bland these days, but traditionally throws in one freakout scene per movie; 1989’s Vampire’s Kiss, one of his most entertaining performances, was essentially one long freakout as he succumbed to the belief that he was bitten by a vampire.

With his character on drugs throughout the proceedings, Port of Call returns to a similar vein – Cage is the kind of batshit insane that few other actors can match, and hugely entertaining every hallucination along the way.

And in Nicolas Cage, Werner Herzog has found the leading-role insanity (not counting Timothy Treadwell) that his films have missed since the days of Klaus Kinski. Also on full display: a surreal view of post-Katrina New Orleans Americana that avoids falling into familiar territory; compare to Bertrand Tavernier’s underrated In the Electric Mist.

Along with The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, this was one of my favorite movies of 2009. “Shoot him again. His soul’s still dancing.”

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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