Alright, let’s get this out of the way; Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” is not a remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film “Bad Lieutenant” which, as a friend of mine from high school pointed out “made ‘Taxi Driver’ look like ‘Alice in Wonderland!’” The only thing these films have in common is they have a main character who is a police lieutenant with serious gambling and drug addictions which suck them deep into a realm of immorality. Other than that, they are completely different cinematic works which somehow ended up with the same darn title. Comparing the two films, while in some respects inevitable, does neither any favors. Then again, they do have the same producer, Edward R. Pressman.
I do have to confess this is the very first feature length movie from Werner Herzog I have ever watched. Yes, I did see “Grizzly Man” and “Encounters at the End of the World,” but they were documentaries (brilliant ones might I add). Being the big movie buff that I am, you will likely find this shameful on my part, and it probably is, but you won’t have to worry about me comparing “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” to all his other works. From what I have heard, Herzog’s films deal with human psyches in a most extreme and uncontrollable state, so this film must be right up his alley in terms of themes he has dealt with throughout his career. It also allows Nicolas Cage a role where he can (and does he ever) go completely crazy in the only way Cage can.
Cage stars as Terence McDonagh a sergeant with the New Orleans police force. We watch as Terence enters the severely damaged police department with his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) as they try to salvage some stuff which was not laid waste in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They end up coming across a prisoner still in his cell who should have been evacuated, and he is running out of time as the water level rises. Bothe Terence and Stevie seem perfectly willing to let this unlucky schmuck drown, but when Terence sees him start to pray, he quickly jumps into the contaminated water to rescue him. While he succeeds and is later made a lieutenant as a result, he also ends up with a serious back injury which requires medication he is told to take indefinitely, probably for the rest of his life.
Terence starts off being prescribed Vicodin by his less than hopeful doctor, something I had when I got my wisdom teeth taken out, and which my mother became terrified I would get addicted to. It’s all downhill from there as Terence quickly moves from Vicodin to cocaine, and then to crack or whatever else he can smuggle out of the evidence room. And just when you think he could not sink any deeper, he does. Eventually, he gets involved with local drug dealer Big Fate played by rapper Xzibit, looking livelier here than he did in “The X-Files: I Want to Believe.” By collaborating with Big Fate, Terence hopes to pay off his mounting debts. Throughout this twisted voyage, he is also met by a pair of iguanas who keep following him. Of course, no one can see them except him.
As dark and immoral as the plot and the characters are, I actually found this film to be shockingly funny. Seriously, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” has moments which are laugh out loud funny, and I couldn’t believe how much I was enjoying myself while watching this insanity. What’s on display here gives “Observe and Report,” the blackest of black comedies, a big run for its money in the perversely funny department. The audience I saw it with were also laughing as loud as I was as the utter madness constantly left us in complete hysterics.
But the big delight I got was watching Cage act in a totally unhinged state to where you would think this was a sequel to “Wild at Heart.” This collaboration with Herzog brought Cage back to the kind of role he does best. In films like “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Face/Off” among others, he proves to be a master of pulling off over the top performances which are infused with endless creativity. Herzog simply sets him loose to play a character whose mind is in a constant state of implosion which exposes a soul most corrupted.
One key scene comes when Terence pulls over a young couple driving home from a club. Cage plays the scene straight as he gets from these two what he wants and knows they have on them, and then he switches gears when the lady gives him a hit from what she is smoking. In the process, he begins to make out with her while her stunned schmuck of a boyfriend is forced to watch. This scene is as horrifying as it is hilarious, and only an actor as risk taking and reckless as Cage could possibly sell us on it.
So, what’s Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” really about? I’m not entirely sure. It could be he is forcing us to look at a man whose soul is as toxic as the water that submerged much of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and of how this man is forced to descend into hell in order to find of redemption. But considering how over the top this film is in portraying Terence’s increasingly manic state, you have to wonder if Herzog is more interested in the journey Terence is taking as opposed to where he ends up. It didn’t matter much to me in the end because I was enjoying myself too much, and that’s even if it was for all the wrong reasons.
Cage is also surrounded by a good cast of actors who do memorable work here as well. It was nice to see Brad Dourif here, having seen and liked him in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II,” as Terence’s bookie whom he is heavily in debt to. Kilmer is very good as Terence’s corrupt partner, and that’s even if he has to stand in the shadow of Cage throughout. I have to say I was very surprised to Jennifer Coolidge cast as Terence’s stepmother. Having seen her in so many comedic roles, it was interesting to see her to take on something different and more dramatic. Vondie Curtis-Hall appears as well playing Terence’s superior, Captain James Brasser, and Tom Bower rounds out the cast by portraying his alcoholic father, Pat McDonagh.
Eva Mendes is also on board here as Terence’s prostitute girlfriend, Frankie. She previously co-starred with Nicholas Cage in “Ghost Rider,” and she plays the same kind of role she played in “We Own the Night;” a party girl whose boyfriend supplies her with all the fun and drugs she ever needs. On the basis of her performance here, I hoped she would get stronger roles in the future as she makes Frankie’s transition from being selfish to getting saved from herself very believable. She has since gone on to give excellent performances in “The Other Guys,” “Holy Motors” and “The Place Among the Pines.”
Herzog gives this film a rough and dirty look which all but suits the characters and the sleaze they submerge themselves in. The whole shebang could have been ruined if he shot the whole thing in high definition, for it would have made the visuals look much too tidy. This is not a movie you want to look all smoothed over and polished at the surface. It requires an atmosphere thick with humidity and with slime dripping off of everything as it eats away what is left. For all I know right now, Herzog is not a director who is even remotely interested in sweetening up story and characters in order to make his movies more available to a mainstream audience.
“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” deserves to be taken on its own terms and not compared to Ferrara’s film in which Harvey Keitel went for the “Full Monty.” Its story is not always easy to follow, but it is endlessly entertaining for those in the mood for something bizarrely funny and far from normal. It also allowed Cage a temporary haven from the junk he has been forced to star in, and he gets free rein to go wild and crazy like no one else can. Thus, Cage reminds of us here that he is still more than capable of giving a brilliantly entertaining performance, not that we should have doubted that in the first place. While his career looks to having him churn out one straight to video movie after another, there is always those gems like this, “Joe” and “Pig” to remind us of what a tremendous talent he is.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have a ton of Herzog films to catch up on. I am behind enough on his work as it is.
* * * ½ out of * * * *