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Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) ***

April 6, 2010


written by: William Finkelstein
produced by: Edward Pressman
directed by: Werner Herzog
rated R (for drug use and language throughout, some violence and sexuality)
122 min.
U. S. release date: November 20, 2009
DVD & Blu-ray release date: April 6, 2010   



When I first heard that Oscar-winning actor, Nicolas Cage was teaming up with acclaimed auteur director, Werner Herzog, I was hesitantly curious. It’s been quite a long time since audiences were given proof that Cage has Oscar chops. And it was about this time last year, after seeing Cage in the disappointing “Knowing”, I declared to myself that I would just give up on his acting ability. But Herzog is always a fascinating director (“Rescue Dawn” and “Grizzly Man”) so that had me interested but then I heard what the title of the movie would be which brought on the hesitation. Immediately, everyone thought this film was to be a remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film “Bad Lieutenant” with an unforgettable performance by Harvey Keitel. It would seem very odd to me that Herzog would make a remake since he seems to have a storehouse of his own creativity but even if he were to remake such a disturbing film, it would certainly be quite a ride.

This is not a remake or a reboot although it could be considered a re-imagining since at the core of both films is an addicted and afflicted corrupt cop. While Ferrara’s film was set in New York City and was laden with Catholic symbolism, Herzog goes south to New Orleans, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This desperate and sweaty location winds up being perfect for an absolutely gonzo performance by Cage. Consider this the rare film where everything lines up for Cage and we see the kind of performance that David Lynch was got out of him in “Wild at Heart”.
The story begins with the image of a snake swimming through the flood waters of New Orleans. It’s the first of many reptiles Herzog uses to not only set the slimey tone but also inject hallucinatory images into the film. The snake leads us to New Orleans cops, Terence Madonna (Cage) and Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer, rescued from the land of direct-to-DVD) as they do a walk-thru their water-logged precinct. There they come across a panicked prisoner left in the slammer as the flood waters rise to his neck. At first, the two place bets as to how long the inmate will last and we can easily see them leaving him to die which would be establish how “bad” they are. Instead, McDonagh dives in to save him (after he whines about getting his fifty dollar pair of underwear ruined), and winds up hurting his back in the process. As soon as we see his doctor telling him he’s basically screwed, prescribing him pain killers, we know the downward spiral is beginning for this guy.
We catch up with McDonagh six months later and sure enough, this guy is gone. On top of his already surly attitude, he’s become a hardcore drug addict, compulsive gambler and an unsettling crooked cop. At no point is there a time when he is not high on some kind of drug. He darts his way through crime scenes, his precinct and dark alleys while nervously mumbling to himself.  Few actors can do sweaty paranoia and depravity that reaches such perverse levels than Cage can. He spends the majority of the film, hunched over with a limp yet in some loony way  he has control over his detective skills.
Somewhere in between all his pill-popping and snorting, McDonagh manages to lead an investigative search for the murderer of a family of five. They were found shot in their home, execution style, apparently somehow tied to drugs. Throughout the case, McDonagh has to deal with drug kingpin, Big Fate (Xzibit), his annoyed bookie, Ned (Brad Dourif) and his captain (Vondie Curtis-Hall) while trying to protect his prostitute girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes) from some thugs he owes money. The whole story has Cage giving a hilariously unraveled character that reminds you that given the right material and director, he still can deliver some fine work.
Could we be getting a resurgence of greatness out of Cage? Between this one and his upcoming role in “Kick-Ass”, one would easily think that. If his career path is cyclical, we only need look at his past work and see how often he phones it in. At least, we can take in a couple good roles until then. But this really is the best work he’s done in years. It’s worth watching just for the quirky physicality he brings to the role.
There are some fine actors rounding out the supporting casts. Usually in wacky comedic roles, Jennifer Coolidge plays McDonagh’s alcoholic step mother while his father is played by veteran actor, Tom Bower plays a recovering alcoholic. Nice pair.  Fairuza Balk, Irma P. Hall and the Michael Shannon deliver some great small roles that give bring just the right amount of variety to the film’s atmosphere. These actors continue to provide solid character work wherever they show up.
Screenwriter, William M. Finkelstein has some police procedurals (Law & Order, NYPD Blue) under his belt and here he establishes the right balance of shock and guffaw to this twisted take on B-level noir. He writes McDonagh as a skilled cop whose utter brokenness and iguana hallucinations hamper any stability. Unfortunately, Finkelstein does stumble into cliché territory here and there. How many times do we have to see a rogue cop hand in his badge and gun?  Despite both Cage and Herzog bringing their A-game, it’s hard to escape the script’s genre traps. Herzog himself seems to get a bit overindulgent with the films length. It could’ve easy ended about fifteen minutes earlier although the ending is a surprising payoff as it almost seems like everything is coming up roses for McDonagh. While it is not necessarily a funny movie, there are enough uncomfortable and awkward situations that result in some genuinely dark humor, giving the film an overall oddball unpredictability.
“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” suffers from an awful title which may give some a case of deja vu. It’s really not as raunchy and real as Abel Ferrera’s “Bad Lieutenant” due to Cage’s over-the-top silliness as McDonagh. He never feels as threatening as Keitel’s bad lieutenant which is fine because Herzog never intended to do a remake. He and Cage provide an audacious and cheeky look at the strung-out, corrupt cop genre from a broad theatrical perspective and a devilish grin.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2011 2:37 pm

    I was a Herzog fan way back when only film school geeks even knew who he was. Like most, I was seduced by the stories about him and the language he used during interviews more than by the films themselves. I’ve long been disappointed by his films, especially his narrative, feature films. I’m not sure whether its that the films are decent, but just couldn’t possibly live up to the hype, or if it’s that many of them are not even worthy of theatrical distribution, and it’s the hype that gives them life. Either way, there is definitely a relationship between Herzog’s films and the unique way that his personality serves to market them. There’s been a few exceptions – “Rescue Dawn” is good enough (though far from great), though I preferred the documentary Herzog made first about this subject “Little Dieter Learns to Fly”.
    This film, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”, has pretty much sealed the deal about how I feel about Herzog’s narrative films. It had a few decent moments, but overall, and really, through most of it, I felt like I was watching a student film (albeit one made by a graduate level film student at a top-tier film school). That POV shot with the alligator is laughably bad. Nicolas Cage’s acting is completely uneven. Eva Mendes looked like she was about to break out into laughter a number of times. The best thing about the movie was Xzibit, who I must pay more attention to. My biggest issue with this and Herzog’s other films is that he just doesn’t seem to know where to put the camera to capture emotion.

    I will make an effort to watch “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done”, but unless that film somehow redeems him, I’m just not gonna fall for the Herzog hype anymore. I’m not gonna ever let myself see another one of his films just because he’s directed it. Sure, I like” Aquirre…” and a few of his docs. I really want to see the new one. But the best Herzog films are the one’s that star his big personality, though not necessarily made by him – “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” – by Les Blank, “Burden of Dreams” – by Les Blank, “Incident at Loch Ness” – by Zak Penn, and “My Best Fiend” – by Herzog about his tumultuous relationship with the actor Klaus Kinski.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      September 17, 2011 10:02 am

      Yeah, Herzog doesn’t always strike gold for me, but then again I haven’t seen all of his films. I felt there were so many things about this movie that were laughably bad and silly, that I wound up respecting it somewhat. At least Cage isn’t giving the typically bland performances we mainly see him phone in. I feel like his role here actually calls for some uneven nuttiness. This is a bit more akin to “Wild at Heart”, although not as full-on looney. Xzibit is pretty good , I liked him in “Gridiron Gang” as well. I’m sure Mendes did bust out into laughter at times. I’m a big fan of “Rescue Dawn”, I think Steve Zahn’s work is undervalued in it. Of course, Bale is pretty amazing in it too. I still have to catch up with “Little Dieter” and his other docs.

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