by Sam Juliano
Although Werner Herzog’s new feature Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans is neither a sequel nor a remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult film, there’s an undeniable kinship in the immorality of the lead characters. Like the earlier film , the central character becomes addicted to what he is cracking down on vocationally, and is caught up in gambling, prostitution and mob involvement. But Herzog veers this film in a different direction, making his corrupt cop a kind of Hunter S. Thompson. Hunching over as a result of a back injury, and laughing at the oddest moments, homicide detective Terrence McDonagh make claim to seeing iguanas, which are not visible to anyone else. McDonough was hurt while rescuing someone from the rising floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, and he quickly becomes addicted to Vicodin. In no time he begins to swipe cocaine and heroin from the evidence room, and he shakes down people for drugs (which he then uses or sells) theatening arrest if they don’t cooperate. He even gets high with some and forces the guys to watch him have sex with their women.
As McDonough the bold and resourceful Nicolas Cage gives one of the best performances in his career, but it’s surely one of the meatiest roles he’s ever been given. It almost seems preordained that Cage and the eclectic Herzog would one day collaborate, as their pairing is a match made in heaven, and the results manage to turn was may have been an ordinary noir into something far more thought-provoking and original. Cage’s outageous behavior is never shown as something repugnant, and even his head trips are never conclusively attributed to his mental deterioration; some of what he sees may actually be there, including iguanas scampering off a coffee table and a dead gator in the middle of the road. Herzog’s use of disarming humor allows the audience to build a valid emotional connection to McDonough, and despite his often ghastly behavior, (which includes one unbelievable scene where he pulls the oxygen tube from the nose of the ailing mother of a U.S. congressman) he is far more colorful and charismatic than all those around him, many of whom of strictly of the stock variety. In one unforgettable scene, Cage, armed with a 44 magnum on his waist urges his accomplice to finish the kill, urging “Shoot him again…his soul is still dancing!” It’s this bizarre marriage of noirish narrative and atmospheric fabric to black comedy that’s often uproarious, that makes Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans a hybrid that is very much Lynchian in tone and sensibility, yet Herzog’s mark is undeniable, especially the feat of turning Cage into an on-screen iguana. If the aforementioned Thompson had adapted any one of a number of noir’s most celebrated scribes, you certainly get something resembling Herzog’s film.
Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger use New Orleans locales effectively, suffusing the film with images of water and unapologetic squalor. But the film isn’t really dark, but a deliberate artistic decision that is aimed at mitigating against the bleakness and entrapment one sees in normal noirs. The film doesn’t utilize any ‘city specific’ landmarks, and instead is shot is seedy taverns, clammy jails and a country shack, and if anything the city isn’t seen as any different than so many others, at least not as place that was ravaged with the worst natural catastrophe in many a year. But Herzog, a consumate documentarian, has invariably been attracted to places that have the potential to tell stories themselves, and the knowlege of the setting provides the dramatic underpinning for William Finklestein’s pulpy but wholly original script, which features Terrence’s descent into darkness and amorality. By the end of the film he’s become a kind of cartoon character, who at least in some measure recalls Keitel’s over-the-top histrionics. While this allows Cage to really strut his stuff, it’s the most sedate work earlier on as the metamorphosis unfolds, that is the most fascinating to behold, including his manner of expressing pain in the earlier scenes by utilizing body language and facial expressions.
It could be argued that the essence of the film is a rather pedestrian and time-worn police procedural, with plot points that mirror television shows with the usual criminal investigations, and that it might seem at times that this is really the central focus. But Herzog’s apparently deliberate caveat of making the story almost self-parody with Terrence’s wildly erratic behavior, and his becoming an on-screen lizard, don’t allow for neither narrative fidelity to normal resolution nor societal justice, instead offering up a most unlikely final scenario that includes a strain of “probability.” Near the beginning of the film, we see a sinuous snake slithering along, establishing the metaphorical connection with the ‘Bliss of Evil’ Terrence mentioned. Of course, Herzog has long had the talent of transforming the most normal of situations into the bizarre, and Cage’s Terrence is one of his greatest creations, certainly comparable to the immoral character played by Klaus Kinski in Aguire the Wrath of God. If the mythological aspects of Aguire are not encored here, at least the bizarre character instabilities are with the showcase descent into madness, and the obsessive personalities. One could obviously add the lead in Grizzly Man and Fitzcaraldo to that mix.
Although Cage’s portrayal in the film of a cop who is at the same time a hero and a hypocrite is an actor’s feast, especially for this ‘way out there’ actor whose boldness is most admirable (Listen to the way he says “A Man without a gun is not a man”) the support he receives is of the stock variety, although again this is exactly what Herzog intended. Terrence’s prostitute, played by Eva Mendes is meant be a symbol in Terrence’s existence, and the performance is rather modulated, while the noted actor Val Kilmer is underused. But it’s Cage and Herzog’s show, and by effectively conveying corruption with a whimsical slant, the latter that supplied the former with one of his greatest roles. The end result is one of the noted documentarian’s finest and most entertaining fiction films.
Final Rating: **** 1/2
Note: I saw ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ on Saturday evening, Nove. 14th at the Chelsea Cinemas in Manhattan with Lucille and Broadway Bob Eagleson. Lucille thought the film “OK” while Bob was much less charitable. We ate the The Dish, and I enjoyed a salad with oil and vinegar, turkey meat loaf, a baked potato and peas and carrots, while Lucille had pork loin and Bob chicken parm and vegetables. We were lucky with the parking, and found a space right here the theatre on 8th Avenue.