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Our review of Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (Blu-Ray), published April 1st, 2010, is also available.
"Whatever I take is prescription. Except for the heroin."
"A man without a gun is not a man."
Facts of the Case
Sgt. Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage, Con Air) of the New Orleans PD has just been promoted to lieutenant, thanks to an act of bravery just after Hurricane Katrina. He jumped into the murky, rising waters at a flooded jail to save a prisoner, but injured his back in the process, and now he's addicted to pain killers.
That's OK, though, because McDonagh is also addicted to every other drug out there, and with the help of a nervous colleague, is able to loot the evidence room after drug busts.
Then McDonagh gets a case, a big one. A family of Senegalese immigrants—parents, grandmother, and two young children—is slaughtered. The prime suspect is drug dealer Big Fate (Xzibit, American Violet), on whose turf the Senegalese man made the mistake dealing heroin. But Big Fate causes Big Fear to the locals, and it's going to be almost impossible to find anyone to connect him to the crime.
This case isn't the only problem occupying McDonagh. Besides his constant search for drugs, he's got a high-maintenance, high-class call girl girlfriend (Eva Mendes, Hitch) and a father who's drinking himself to death. Is it any wonder this Lieutenant's gone Bad?
The first thing you have to do to appreciate Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is forget that the great Abel Ferrara/Harvey Keitel collaboration Bad Lieutenant was ever made. Port of Call director Werner Herzog insists that his film has no connection to the earlier one and that he hasn't even seen it; for his part, Ferrara, believing that the 2009 film was, in fact, a remake, publicly stated that anyone associated with Herzog's film should die in hell.
Herzog might not have seen Ferrara's film, but screenwriter William Finkelstein certainly did. Like Ferrara's Lieutenant, Finkelstein's McDonagh is foul mouthed, drug addled, and in the hole to a bookie. Additionally, a scene in Ferrara's film in which the Lieutenant hassles a pair of teenage girls is the obvious basis for a scene here in which McDonagh hassles a young couple leaving a club.
Beyond those similarities, these are two entirely different movies. Herzog's film is entertaining and occasionally inventive, but it lacks the grit, intensity, and raw moral center of Ferrara's grungy classic.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans has a distinctive '70s feel to it, with its convoluted, almost disposal central mystery and loopy anti-hero. It edges between comedy and drama, with the absurd humor coming across strongest. It's a fun ride but wildly uneven, a mash of subplots and sight gags, violence and sentiment, a few oddly placed sitcom-like moments, and a florid central performance by Cage that overshadows everyone and everything else on screen.
Herzog's a great director, but he doesn't quite make Finkelstein's staccato, episodic script into something fluid and compelling. There's just too much going on here, too many little side trips and episodes that pull us out of the story, with the mood and tone hopscotching around so much that after a while, it's hard to care but so much.
Instead of a fever dream, Herzog gives us a fairly standard police actioner with some strikingly offbeat flourishes. Some of these flourishes work very well and are unnervingly funny; others, not so much, with the visual and audio nonsequitors occasionally feeling forced. The oft-noted scene of Cage's iguana hallucination is cool, but like a later hallucination, it comes out of nowhere. McDonagh just doesn't spend enough time seeing things for these scenes to feel cohesive; instead, they seem a little indulgent, self-conscious efforts to weird-up the story. The Lieutenant's murder case is wrapped up with an efficiency that might be meant to be ironic, and we get a sequence near the end that could have been lifted from a romcom—unless, of course, it's all a dream.
Nicolas Cage's performance is the centerpiece here, and it's gotten a lot of attention. It's fun to watch in an old-school way—think Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?—but is it great acting or just another entry in Cage's gallery of over-the-top characterizations? I don't know. At times, he's fascinatingly deranged; at other times, annoyingly so. His inspiration seems to be Watergate-era Richard Nixon—a choice complemented by his jowly face and the slightly stooped posture he occasionally adopts to suggest back pain—and in his more sober moments, Jimmy Stewart on a bender.
But other than general outlandishness, Cage doesn't give us much to hold onto here. We rarely get a sense of Terence as a person. The script has him say and do so many "unexpected" things, that after a while, we come to expect them, so the impact of him, say, pulling a gun on an old woman or smoking a joint with a suspect, or firing off an out-of-nowhere quip is lessened. When Cage reins in the quirks and outbursts—in films like Leaving Las Vegas or Adaptation, or even John Woo's Face/Off—there's nobody better. Here, it seems there was no one to push the "stop" button, and we get a big, outrageous performance that winds up being more artifice than art, with little in the way of subtext to support it.
The rest of the cast is fine, but since everyone is basically playing straight man for Cage, even the usually colorful Val Kilmer and Brad Dourif fade into the background. Strangely, for a film so setting-specific, none of the main characters—including Cage—seems particularly Southern. Of the secondary characters, Mendes and Xzibit come off best, the actress working quite naturally with the unleashed Cage and the former rapper evidently just having a great time as a smart, confident villain who tends to treat Cage's McDonagh like a cracked-out member of his posse.
First Look does a great job in the tech department. Working with Director of Photography Peter Zeitlinger, a frequent collaborator, Herzog gives us a haunting vision of a still-devastated post-Katrina New Orleans, and the transfer here offers an excellent representation of their work. The main audio track is a strong Dolby surround, though a stereo track is here as well.
The extras are pretty slim. A "Making of" featurette feels a bit scattershot, with most of its focus on Herzog ("The very point for me is that there is also such a thing as the bliss of evil") and a few random comments from Kilmer, Cage, and various members of the production crew. Incidentally, during a shoot, Herzog notes that the film is called Bad Lieutenant, dispelling the myth that the title was added later by a marketing person in an effort to link it to Ferrara's film. Disappointingly, Herzog doesn't talk about the connection, or lack of connection, between the two films. We also get a gallery of photos shot by Lena Herzog, the director's wife, and trailers.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a lot of fun, but it's just not the classic of crazy it might have been. Worth a look, though.
Not guilty, at least in this court.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
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