First Look Pictures // 2009 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 1st, 2010
The only criminal he can't catch is himself.
"Is this the same police force my father was in?"
Terence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage, National Treasure) is a valued member of the New Orleans Police Department. He has just been promoted to the rank of lieutenant and is quickly given a high-profile investigation to work on. Several people have been brutally murdered. The police department is pretty sure that a local criminal named Big Fate (Xzibit, American Violet) is responsible; the problem is finding the evidence to prove it.
McDonagh is suffering from severe back pain, which he attempts to alleviate with strong prescription medication. As the investigation continues, McDonagh turns from prescription drugs to illegal ones. His behavior starts to change too, as McDonagh begins using increasingly less ethical means to go about getting the information he needs. Will his tactics allow him to complete the investigation successfully, or will our protagonist be destroyed by his own behavior?
Two things that you should know upfront: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans has one of the most ungainly titles in recent memory and has very little whatsoever to do with Abel Ferrera's excellent Bad Lieutenant (upon which this film is ostensibly based). Well, there's a third thing you should know: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a genuinely terrific movie. It is a transcendent film, by which I mean that it transcends the genre it is working in, the easy moral lessons such films often offer and Ferrera's film. This is bold, fearless filmmaking, but that's not quite as much of a surprise. Who would expect less with the great Werner Herzog at the helm?
Even when the director is working on a studio film with a decent-sized budget and big stars, Herzog is never merely a talented hired gun. A Herzog film is always going to feel like a Herzog film, and this effort is no exception. Most Herzog protagonists (both in his fictional films and documentaries) contain at least some element of madness; in Terence McDonagh we see echoes of Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, and Timothy Treadwell. Even so, the veteran director still has some new tricks up his sleeve. Yes, it's another Herzog film about a character's descent into madness, but this time the descent is given a fresh perspective that's both surprising and unnerving.
Speaking of fresh perspective, the film is littered with quite a lot of striking imagery (another one of Herzog's strong points as a director). What's particularly remarkable is that Herzog manages to so convincingly immerse us in the world of Post-Katrina New Orleans. There are too few films that really allow the location to feel like a distinct place with a personality of its own. As in his documentaries, Herzog frequently breaks away from the primary subject at hand to really study items that might catch our eye that other films might ignore. Consider the moment in which Cage pauses at a crime scene to read a poem a child wrote about a fish that lives inside a small cup of water, or the much-discussed scene in which Herzog offers a pair of iguanas their own extended point-of-view shots (the real kicker: the iguanas are seemingly hallucinatory creations of McDonagh's drug-addled mind).
Say what you will about Nicolas Cage, but I'm not sure there's any other actor who could have played this role as successfully. Cage tears into the part with the sort of nutso fury we haven't seen from him in quite some time...or ever, really. It's a wildly over-the-top performance and a very entertaining one, but there's certainly a method to the madness. This is one of Cage's most fully-realized performances, with plenty of subtle nuances being incorporated into the character. Consider the way that Cage so convincingly reminds us of his severe back pain in the way that he moves; his slightly hunched-over posture befitting the character's theatrical villainy. How does it compare to Keitel's performance in the original Bad Lieutenant? Apples and oranges; let's just acknowledge that they're both striking turns from two very talented (albeit very different) actors.
The supporting cast is littered with talented folks who turn in good work. Eva Mendes (We Own the Night) is basically promoted on the packaging as Cage's co-star, but in truth she's onscreen a whole lot less than he is. Even so, she turns in a solid performance and manages to generate better chemistry with Cage than they did in Ghost Rider. Val Kilmer (The Saint) plays the one cop on the force who may be even more corrupt than Cage, while Brad Dourif (The Wild Blue Yonder) has a stellar supporting turn as Cage's bookie. Xzibit (Derailed) is effective as the murder suspect, and there are small but compelling roles for Jennifer Coolidge (American Pie) and Irma P. Hall (The Ladykillers). Michael Shannon turns up too, but isn't really given anything that would allow him to make much of an impression. Finally, I want to note the performance of J.D. Evermore (Stop-Loss), who offers a brand of sleazy weirdness in one scene that's hilariously off-putting (in a way that serves the scene well, mind you).
As I popped in the disc and watched the trailers that preceded the feature, I grew worried about the Blu-ray transfer. The trailers are presented in a very sloppy, half-hearted fashion with poor detail and depth, but fortunately greater care has been put into the presentation of the actual film. The 1080p image is clean and detailed throughout, with rich blacks and strong shadowing. Some of the more colorful moments seem a bit off, with a tiny bit of fringing here and there. The 5.1 TrueHD audio is excellent throughout, as Mark Isham's appropriately moody score comes through with sinuous clarity. The handful of louder scenes really have quite a kick, while dialogue and sound design are well-mixed throughout.
Extras are pretty light. I was disappointed to discover that Herzog did not provide a commentary for the film, as his commentaries are generally such a fascinating listen. However, we do get a 30-minute documentary on the making of the film, which is an odd but compelling watch. Progressing in a sort of casual, free-flowing fashion, the documentary blends behind-the-scenes footage (a dead alligator being cut open, Herzog directing extras, Xzibit cackling at the selection of crack pipes being used on the film, etc.) with brief interview snippits with the cast and crew. While this approach can be a little frustrating, at least it doesn't feel like a standard EPK-style piece. Herzog also offers a couple of valuable comments that are well worth tuning in for; as they go a long way towards helping one understand what the director was trying to achieve with the film. There's also an exceptionally beautiful HD photo album by Lena Herzog, plus a theatrical trailer.
To the break of dawn, baby!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Photo Gallery
* Cinema Verdict Review