a.k.a. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans
company: Millennium Films
and Saturn Films
country: United States
director: Werner Herzog
cast: Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer,
Eva Mendes, Feiruza Balk,
Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif,
Michael Shannon, Shawn Hatosy
writer: William M. Finkelstein
cinematographer: Peter Zeitlinger
music: Mark Isham
out in limited release
pre-order the film from Amazon.com:
DVD | Blu-ray
Warning: This review probably contains some spoilers.
Plot: A police lieutenant is hampered by drug addiction, local gangsters, and an ever-loosening grip on reality while heading up a homicide investigation in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is, in a word, unlikely. A reboot in name only of the 1992 cult picture Bad Lieutenant produced more than 15 years after the fact with Nicolas Cage in the starring role and Werner Herzog in the director’s chair, its very conception seems suspect, and yet it’s here all the same. Herzog has taken the script by William M. Finkelstein (writer for N.Y.P.D. Blue and L.A. Law, amongst other television shows) and made something special, a darkly comic tale of corruption, addiction, and redemption and one of the best films of the year.
Herzog’s sense of location is as impeccable as ever, and he makes the depopulated ruins of New Orleans parishes, crumbling in the shadows of the glass towers of the city proper and festering with all manner of crime, as much a character as any other in the film. Set only a few months after the disaster of Katrina, Herzog’s New Orleans is a place already forgotten by those on the outside – a near-apocalyptic landscape that can’t help but be the birthplace of monsters.
One such monster is newly promoted police lieutenant Terence McDonagh (Cage), a pitiable creature whose chronic pain has led him into addictions to heroin, crack, and cocaine. McDonagh is an undeniably talented officer, seen at one point single-handedly apprehending a suspect while a SWAT team waits outside, but his tunnel vision starts to get the better of him after his promotion. As he tells a suspect he’s arresting, “it’s amazing how much you can get done when you’ve got a simple purpose guiding you through life.” Unfortunately for McDonagh, securing a constant supply of illicit drugs has become that simple purpose.
Things go well for a while. McDonagh subsists off the steady stream of cocaine and prescription drugs filtering into the evidence room of his department and even finds a kindred spirit and devoted lover in high-class prostitute Frankie (Mendes). But the life can’t last, and soon he’s betting on football games with money he doesn’t have and getting in trouble with the local mob. The hallucinations – particularly of ambivalent iguanas on stakeouts – don’t help. McDonagh hits rock bottom hard, forced to make an uneasy allegiance with the local gangster responsible for the homicide he’s investigating after the case falls apart due to his own negligence.
Herzog keeps the audience aware of the fact that, in spite of all the snarling, screaming, and frequent insanity, McDonagh is ultimately just a decent human being in the midst of making the worst decisions of his life. The accident that led to his chronic pain was the result of his rescuing a suspect, left behind after the waters began to rise – no good deed goes unpunished. Herzog allows McDonagh to commit (and get away with) truly despicable acts on the shaky road to redemption, but always leaves ample room for forgiveness, never letting McDonagh succumb to mortal sin. The lieutenant even goes so far as to save the life of murderous gangster Big Fate (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner) from his depraved partner Stevie (Kilmer).
I never thought I’d find myself praising a performance from Nicolas Cage, but here it’s deserved. Kudos to Herzog for allowing the actor to flex his professional muscles, which have gone so underserved by recent efforts like Next, Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man, and on and on and on. Cage lurches through the film like an old-school Universal monster, retaining that all-important note of tragedy while on his drugged-out rampage. It’s the best performance that’s been seen from the actor in years, and a welcome respite with crap like Ghost Rider 2 (I suppose even Cage has to eat) on the way.
Herzog keeps up his well-earned reputation for experimentation and even finds room to dabble with surrealism in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. McDonagh’s highs are amplified with operatic outbursts of handi-cam wildlife close-ups (notably of an iguana and an alligator) while another scene has the youthful soul of an aged hit man break dancing after the man himself is killed. The ambiguous fish-tank ending will leave many viewers scratching their heads, though it seems entirely appropriate in the context of the film. Herzog always has had an affinity for being strange just for the sake of being strange, and that’s just fine with me.
Teaming up with Herzog once again is cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (Encounters at the End of the World, Wheel of Time, and Invincible to name a few), and his presence is welcome here. Frequently working with natural light alone, Zeitlinger ensures Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ place as one of the best photographed pictures of the year. Composer Mark Isham (Invincible, The Black Dahlia) provides the exceptional score, its themes rich in accoustic guitar and augmented with occasional explosions of harmonica. Here’s hoping a CD release is on the way.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is out in limited release in the States with simultaneous Blu-ray and DVD releases slated for April of next year from distributor First Look Films (this article will be updated with a disc review at that time). This is, for my money, one of the best films I’ve seen all year – old or new. Herzog is still a master of the craft, and his latest comes very highly recommended.