Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Review


I’m not at all familiar with Abel Ferrera’s 1992 cult classic “Bad Lieutenant,” other than the fact that Werner Herzog re-imagined it into 2009’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” The former film starred Harvey Keitel as a dirty cop capable who didn’t give a damn about law and order. The latter film stars Nicolas Cage in the same role, but from what I’ve read, that’s where the similarities end. And that’s about where the merits of Herzog’s film end. I found Cage’s character fascinating, and as a character study, the film succeeds. But as a police procedural, the film isn’t exactly enthralling. The details of Cage’s character’s investigation are dull and detract from the main show – watching this man fall apart in epic fashion.

There seems to have been a time when Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) was an ordinary cop. We first meet him while he saves a prisoner from the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. But six months after the storm, he suffers from chronic back pain (as a result of saving the prisoner), a serious drug habit, and a gambling addiction. He dates a prostitute (Eva Mendes), but it appears to be more of a relationship of practicality than love (he gives her drugs he steals from the police holding room; she gives him…well, you know). He also shows a complete and utter disregard for the law he is supposed to be upholding. He steals drugs from crime scenes. He bribes and blackmails. He even removes the breathing tube of an elderly woman.

He’s also investigating the murder of a Senegalese family in New Orleans. The prime suspect is Big Fate (rapper/actor Xzibit), the local drug kingpin, but the police can’t seem to nail him down. The only witness is a 15-year-old boy, but he’s too afraid to testify. And all throughout the investigation, Terence’s bad habits hinder his ability to solve the crime.

On the whole the investigation part of the plot is dull. Things take an interesting turn about three-quarters of the way through the film, but there’s nothing inherently original about this stuff. Big Fate is supposed to be an imposing villain, but he can’t hold a candle to the fascinating character that is Terence.

As a character study, this is one of the most successful in recent memory. The film doesn’t follow a traditional rise-and-fall formula (with the exception of the introductory scene, he’s rotten throughout the film), but he gets worse and worse as the film goes on. Helping to keep your interest in this aspect of the film is the marvelous performance of Nic Cage. To say Cage has an eclectic resume would be an understatement. From “Leaving Las Vegas” to “Adaptation” to this, he’s given a number of great performances. He’s also starred in “Knowing,” “Next,” and a number of other (to be frank) shitty films. I hope he continues to choose oddball stuff like this because it’s clearly where he shines. As Terence, he is fiery, rash, spontaneous, and reckless. But he’s also really interesting to watch. We never quite root for Terence (some of the things he does are a little to despicable for that), but he owns the film.

The direction by Werner Herzog is certainly out there, but it seems appropriate for the context of the film. I didn’t really get the whole iguana thing (I’m sure it represented something; I just didn’t know what), but I really liked the way Herzog incorporated the setting into his film. The film has a real grungy look to it, and the hopelessness in New Orleans at this time is perfect for the story of a hopelessly corrupt man. Herzog also makes some inspired choices with the music. Some of the film’s zaniest moments are scored to Creole-infused jazz.

I wish I could recommend “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” more, but the plot that moves the main character along is just too dull. But Cage’s performance redeems this film and makes it a solid cinematic experience.

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