Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans"

*A note regarding the title: the case of the DVD for this film features the title as you see it here, but the title in the actual film is "The Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans." I'm just sticking with the case title because that's how I've seen it written up elsewhere.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans - Directed by Werner Herzog, starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, and Xzibit - Rated R

Cage is as crazy as the Kurgan in this one.

This is a weird one. First off, the title. It makes it sound like this is a remake, sequel, or re-imagining of the Abel Ferrara film from the 90s starring Harvey Keitel. It's certainly similar on a basic level. Cage is indeed a bad lieutenant and he has problems with drugs and gambling, just like Keitel did in the original. But Cage has a name here, Terence McDonagh, whereas Keitel's character went nameless. It's similar enough in basic plot points to share the title Bad Lieutenant I suppose, but it is vastly different tonally.

The Ferrara film is quite serious and very disturbing. Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant is not a straightforward comedy or anything, but it is certainly not as cerebral as Ferrara's film. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I wish all "remakes" were like this. Why make the same exact movie again? Instead, Herzog and Cage have collaborated to make something really special. I call this movie special because there are so many different ways to look at it. Here are the main four, in my opinion.

#1 - Bad Lieutenant can be taken as a serious police drama with a few wacky moments. There is a surprisingly linear plot involving a drug lord and a murder investigation. If you watch it like that, though, I think most people will see it as a failure.

#2 - This film can be seen as a hallucinogenic drug trip movie, as well. Cage sees iguanas that don't exist. He sees a person's soul dancing. And a couple times I felt the fourth wall was broken. Then there are the reptiles. Every time a reptile appears, Herzog gets ground level with it, and observes the action from the animal's point of view. There's a message in there somewhere, but it's more trippy than philosophical.

#3 - Some people have claimed that this film is actually a parody of typical cop dramas. I can see where that idea shows up. There are some very cheesy elements to this film. It's the little things that caught my attention: the fact that every cop calls every suspect "son," the reaction shots of the officers as they're told about a suspect, etc. And there are clich├ęs aplenty in the story. A corrupt cop at the end of his rope is not the most original story out there. But I can understand people not buying into the parody aspect. It does sound like I'm making excuses to like a film from a seasoned director. Maybe that's the case, but I'm always going to give a proven director the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things like this. I truly believe that any cheesy aspect of this film is completely intentional. (SPOILER ALERT) I think most people will agree with me when they see the scene near the end in which every plotline is resolved in a matter of seconds. The scene is shot somewhat from Cage's perspective and you get this, "Is this really happening?" vibe from it. It's such terrible screenwriting that it has to be done on purpose to get the viewer thinking about what has just happened. To further the idea that the audience has just watched a type of parody, Cage looks directly into the camera and laughs at the very end as if he's in on some joke that's just been pulled.

#4 - The best way to look at this film, however, is as a Nicolas Cage showcase and just go with it. I'm a Cage fan (I honestly enjoy The Wicker Man because of his over the top/strange performance), so regardless of everything else in this film, I knew from the start that I would love it. He brings the crazy in this one and it's fantastic. In the middle of the film he switches to some kind of Jimmy Stewart accent here and there. His character's chronic back pain coupled with extreme drug abuse might explain the change, but it's not consistent. It's just weird and I loved it. His voicework and his typical antics aside, Cage delivers an interesting physical performance as well.

Werner Herzog collaborated with the strange and amazing Klaus Kinski a number of times before that actor's death. Here, I think Cage is channeling Kinski, physically. He skulks around (due to his back pain) much like Kinski in Aguirre. More importantly, Cage perfectly mimics Kinski's death stare. The stare that makes it seem like he is on the verge of freaking out at any moment. I hope that Herzog and Cage make more films together, because I can imagine great things in the future from these two.

The supporting cast is impressive in this film, but they all just seemed boring compared to Cage. Kilmer is decent in his few scenes, and I enjoyed Michael Shannon's short role. But Shea Whigam and Brad Dourif were the most amusing side characters as a threatening john and a bookie, respectively.

Of course, when Herzog is involved there's going to more going on in the film than just acting. His camerawork is great as usual. He has this seemingly effortless ability to give his films a dreamlike/meandering quality. There are no "wow" takes or anything, but the camerawork is still more interesting than in a typical film.

So Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a bit of a difficult film, not because it has an overly complicated plot or anything, but because there are so many different ways to look at it. I suggest giving it a chance no matter how you interpret it. Because even if you hate it, you'll at least get to see Nicolas Cage crazy up the screen; and who doesn't enjoy that?


  1. What you left out of the review was one of the strangest moments in the movie: the conclusion in the police station when he's about to hit rock bottom but suddenly everything turns out to work in his favor: the guy with the influential dad comes in to say they're cool, then Brad Dourif walks in and tells him he's won the bet and then his superior puts his head into the frame like if we're watching a spoof to tell him the case is closed. very weird and at first I thought it was part of a dream sequence.

  2. You're right, not only did I leave that out, I simply forgot to mention it. I have added a line to correct this, but I feel that flat out stating how everything ends in a review is too much of a spoiler, even if this film isn't really all about plot.