I’ve been a Werner Herzog fan for a while and I’ve seen over 20 of his films. While I can’t exactly say that Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is one of the German genius’s very best, it’s nevertheless nothing short of absolute must-see Herzog.
And perhaps even more than that, it is without a doubt absolute must-see Nicolas Cage. I know, I know, some of you out there are probably saying “Is there such a thing?” And I assure you that yes—yes, there is.
First, let me direct your attention to such classic Cage performances as those in David Lynch’s Elvis & Oz nightmare-fantasy Wild at Heart, Mike Figgis’s alcoholic melodrama Leaving Las Vegas (for which he won an Oscar), John Woo’s over-the-top action extravaganza Face/Off, and Charlie Kaufman’s falsely autobiographical Adaptation. And now, Bad Lieutenant charges in as a prime example of why Cage is an icon of American cinema.
And let it be stated that Cage and Herzog are an absolute match made in psycho-movie-heaven, and particularly for this insane material. It’s one of those movies where you might not be sure how to react to it at first, but whatever way you might be feeling, you’re right. Sometimes you’ll want to laugh—and you’d be right to. Sometimes you’ll be horrified—and you’d be right to be. Sometimes you’ll be confused—and, oh brother, would you be right.
I’m not sure if I can properly describe this movie, but I’ll give it my best shot. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is about a police lieutenant in New Orleans…who is bad. (And somehow it both is and isn’t that simple.) He’s not bad at being a cop; he’s actually quite clever and well-suited for his job. He’s just a bad dude.
The opening shot of the film follows a snake slithering through the waters of a flooded jail during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, stopping to taunt the last inmate left as he waits for help in water up to his shoulders.
And then along comes Terrence McDonagh (Cage) and fellow cop Steve Pruitt (Val Kilmer). Terrence and Steve take a few minutes to taunt the poor fellow themselves and are even just about to walk away after betting on how long it would be till he dies, when Terrence begrudgingly does the noble thing and jumps in to save the inmate.
This feat of heroics is not without its consequences for Terrence. Oh, sure he gets promoted to lieutenant, but it’s done quite the number on his back and the damage is most likely permanent. The doctor prescribes Vicodin for him and that should be that…right?
Wrong! Absolutely wrong. Oh, if we thought Terrence was bad before, now he’s really in it deep. As a cop, he does the right thing every once in a while, but only when the outcome works out in his favor. It isn’t long before he’s a shameless drug addict who’s perfectly willing to do just about anything to score some drugs. Lucky for him, however, his badge’s goal and his personal goal are one and the same (if for different reasons): find the drugs.
His girlfriend is a prostitute by the name of Frankie (Eva Mendes), an addict just like him, but he usually just stops by when he wants to confiscate drugs from one of her clients, or ask her to look after his father’s dog for a few days.
Port of Call New Orleans doesn’t exactly have a set plotline of which to speak, it’s more like just watching the mindset of this wacky addict as he drowns himself in his own troubled waters of crime, corruption, violence, blackmail, and bribery—all with his next hit being the prize that awaits him.
There are several threads to the story, and at times you’ll find yourself a bit confused by some of them, but fear not! This is a movie that feels comfortable spending two minutes on wide-angle close-ups of hallucinated iguanas set to a soulful rendition of “Release Me,” while in the background the sun blares like a spotlight and Cage amusedly looks on. I’d say you can rest assured that “plot”—in its most traditional sense—is taking a bit of a backseat to some more darkly comic, cerebral, and flat-out deranged undertakings of cinema.
See, the wonder of Terrence’s arc is that he basically has none. He isn’t good before he becomes an addict and he still isn’t afterwards. Will he ever be? My guess is no. He doesn’t seem to want to change. Even when some of those around him do in various ways, he merely adjusts to fit their situation but changes nothing about himself. He’s found his thing and as far as he’s concerned it seems to be working out for him. Unfortunately for everyone else his “thing” is being a real son of a bitch.
And let me just say that if Cage’s character doesn’t have an arc, then surely the movie itself does—or perhaps it’s simply a diagonal line. Or maybe a circle or some kind of polygon.
I feel like there are only two ways that a concept such as this (a look into the life of the corrupt drug-addict cop) could be approached. One of them was done seventeen years ago in Abel Ferrara’s original 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, upon which this film is barely based. That was a serious and somber film which boasted an amazing performance by Harvey Keitel, and looked beneath each layer of our disgusting villain in the guise of a hero until we found a shattering sadness with which we might identify.
The other way is what’s been done here, although the outcome isn’t quite what I might have expected. It’s a movie so up to its chin in loathsome characters going about their loathsome day-to-day business that it dares us simply to laugh. It cranks the absurdity up to eleven to the point where the lieutenant has turned everything in his life so outlandishly rotten, that things can only work out in the end, right? If not in reality, maybe just in his mind? Either way, give us the happy one!
I suppose what I mean to say is that this character, this “bad lieutenant,” could be either a) a tragic figure of self-destructive despair, or b) an unhinged psycho at which we all marvel. Keitel was a perfect choice for the former, just as Cage is for the latter. Of course a third option—probably the easiest—would be to hate him, hate watching him, hate the movie, and hate the whole damn experience. Lesser directors can try and make that movie if they wish, and then try to sell it to us as cool and ironic (not that this movie isn’t dripping with an irony all its own), but I doubt anyone will be interested.
Let it not be mistaken; this movie is a bold and wild black comedy. I mean, in what other movie can you see the aforementioned iguana scene? In what other movie can you see a door closed to reveal Nic Cage standing behind it, waiting to interrogate a witness while menacingly shaving himself with an electric razor? In what other film can you watch a gangland shootout set to bluegrassy harmonica music and end with one of the victims’ souls visibly breakdancing to his heart’s content? “Shoot him again,” Nic Cage orders. “His soul’s still dancing.” A movie this crazy must only find a way to become crazier.
Port of Call New Orleans could easily be considered Herzog’s most experimental film save for, say, Heart of Glass, where he put his entire cast under hypnosis (if that’s not “experimental,” then I don’t know what is). But by that I mean that it’s experimental for him. At the outset, it’s a shockingly mainstream-friendly sort of endeavor for Herzog to take on: an American cop movie—a genre picture. That quest, in and of itself, is one hell of a daring experiment and the result is—of course—anything but mainstream-friendly, a film which I hope to be to the corrupt cop genre what 2012 is to the disaster genre: the one with the balls to say “I think we’re done here.”
Herzog has been making movies about obsession his entire career. It was only a matter of time before he explored addiction—and it produces much stranger results than his usual fare. Normally we hear about what sorts of insanity went on behind the camera for each of his fairly quiet and dignified films. This time, the insanity is what made it onscreen. In light of this, I can only assume that it was a fairly calm shoot.
But I digress. There’s far less humanity in this film than that found in the films that define his career, like Fitzcarraldo, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and more recently Grizzly Man. His dramatic shift in tone suggests Herzog’s attitude towards addiction as considering it far more primal and animalistic. It is, after all, a chemical-based condition, less romantically human and less emotionally complex and powerful.
In fact, full appreciation of Port of Call might be contingent upon being familiar with much of Herzog’s work. To see how it fits into Herzog’s catalog is to grasp more of its themes and ideas and not just look upon it as a specimen of wildly over-the-top filmmaking. Like I said earlier—it’s not quite a masterpiece, but it is absolutely essential Herzog and perhaps his most vital piece of work in years.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans may not have that simple profundity or the quiet dignity and graceful humanity of so many of Herzog’s films, but all that would probably be out of place here. The gentle Herzog touch is not what this film calls for, and no one knows that better than Herzog himself. After all, that’s why we all turned our heads and said “Whaaat???” when we first heard that he was remaking Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage. I even went so far as to say “Oh, that’s bullshit—that’ll never happen.” I suppose now I’m eating my words—or, more appropriately, my shoe.