The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans

Movie Information

The Story: A strung-out, painkiller-addicted policeman goes to extraordinary lengths -- often illegal -- to get the man responsible for a multiple murder, all the while watching his personal life spiral further and further out of control. The Lowdown: Something strange -- and wonderfully so -- from the ever idiosyncratic Werner Herzog: a black comedy take on the film noir genre, built around the best performance from Nicolas Cage in years.
Score:

Genre: Phantasmagorical Black Comedy/Thriller
Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Jennifer Coolidge, Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner
Rated: R

You’ll go a long way to find anything playing right now that’s as downright peculiar as Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orelans. Let’s start with the fact that it’s called The Bad Lieutenant, which suggests that it’s somehow related to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992). Problem is the connection is fairly tenuous. Perhaps that’s the reason, since it somehow would fit the utter perversity of Herzog’s vision.

Nicolas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, the bad lieutenant of the title. When the film starts—the camera following a snake through the rising floodwaters of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina—he’s merely a sergeant and maybe not so bad. In fact, he somewhat foolishly—at the risk of his $55 Swiss cotton underpants—jumps into the water that threatens to engulf a prisoner, Chavez (Nick Gomez), who didn’t get evacuated in time. We don’t learn the fate of those underpants till much later in the film, but the rescue does result in a spinal injury (that often causes Terence to lurch about like a Richard III impersonator), a painkiller addiction and a promotion to lieutenant. Whether it’s the injury, the escalating drug habit, the increase in power, the decay and corruption that surrounds him or the combination of all these things that turns Terence “bad” is never directly addressed. For that matter, there’s some question as to just how bad Terence even is.

There’s no question that Terence operates outside the law—and indeed outside the dictates of anything resembling conventional morality. He abuses his power; he steals drugs from the evidence room; he’s perfectly capable of manufacturing evidence and brutalizing a suspect—or even a possible witness. His girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), is a high-price hooker, but neither that, nor her equally extreme drug problem, bothers Terence much—as long as her customers pay up and don’t abuse her in any way. But then you look at the world he inhabits with its nonstop corruption and you look at his background—which includes an abusive alcoholic father (Tom Bower, Appaloosa) and the old man’s beer-sodden bimbo girlfriend (Jennifer Coolidge)—and Terence McDonagh starts to make a certain kind of twisted sense. He almost might be a slightly more admirable version of Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil rethought for the 21st century.

The film’s central plot—which seems to go by the wayside part-way through, but only seems to—concerns the investigation of the gangland-execution-style murder of an entire family. The crime is clearly linked to a drug lord known as “Big Fate” (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner), but not only is the man seemingly untouchable, there’s not a living soul willing to testify against him. The question becomes how to get at him—a question compounded by Terence’s inability to stay out of trouble himself and simply deal with the myriad curveballs that come his way.

None of this touches on Cage’s performance, which is never less than fascinatingly over the top. It doesn’t matter whether he’s terrorizing elderly women in a nursing home, hunting for not very innocent victims to abuse for the fun of it, scoring drugs or getting weirdly misty-eyed over his thwarted childhood dreams, Cage slides in and out of each move without missing a beat—and some of the beats Herzog wants him to hit are pretty extreme. We’re talking fantasies about iguanas (with lengthy iguana footage—credited to Herzog himself—set to “Release Me” on the sound track) and exhorting a gunman to shoot a dead man again. Why? “His soul is still dancing,” claims Terence—and with an iguana no less. It’s hallucinatory in a way we rarely see in movies. And Cage and Herzog pull it off.

I can’t say a great deal more about the plot without spoiling things, but I will note that when I got to the film’s increasingly bizarre final scenes, I joked, “It’s a tale of virtue rewarded.” After I’d said that I started to wonder if that wasn’t exactly what The Bad Lieutenant actually is—in its own Herzogian manner. Then again, maybe that’s just me. Need I add, the film is not for every taste? Probably not. For those who like their movies on the daring and strange side, this one’s a keeper. Rated R for drug use and language throughout, some violence and sexuality.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

23 thoughts on “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans

  1. “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.” – Werner Herzog

  2. Dread P. Roberts

    Nicolas Cage is such a peculiar actor. Is there anyone else in Hollywood who jumps from great movies/performances, to downright god-awful, the way that he does? I’m sure there is, but I can’t think of anyone to really compete with him for this right now. His performances are as interchangeable as his wigs.

    Truer words have never been spoken.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Truer words have never been spoken

    Oh, I don’t know. I had a pet chicken when I was a child. Her name was Stanley (come on, what do 8-year-olds know about sexing chickens?) and the worst you could say about her was … well, I never saw any cannibalistic behaviour. Then again, she lived with a rabbit, which may or may not be why she hopped.

  4. davidf

    “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.” – Werner Herzog

    Chicken’s are the closest living relatives to the T-rex, you know.

  5. Dread P. Roberts

    Oh, I don’t know. I had a pet chicken when I was a child.

    You kept a spawn of satan for a pet!? Good Lord, man, how did you sleep at night?

    I never saw any cannibalistic behaviour.

    As previously noted, one must look deep into the eyes to find truth. (Though I don’t really recommend such a daring act.)

    [I don't really have anything against chickens. They eat lice and ticks; and they lay delicious, nutritious eggs. That's good enough for me.]

    Back on subject, this sounds like quite an interesting movie. I usually like Val Kilmer, but I didn’t really see anything mentioned about him. Does he play much of a role in this?

  6. Ken Hanke

    [I don’t really have anything against chickens. They eat lice and ticks; and they lay delicious, nutritious eggs. That’s good enough for me.]

    They’re pretty tasty, too.

    Back on subject, this sounds like quite an interesting movie. I usually like Val Kilmer, but I didn’t really see anything mentioned about him. Does he play much of a role in this?

    He’s in a good bit of the film, but I can’t say he registered that much with me — considering the oddness he’s up against that’s not necessarily a condemnation.

  7. jeff

    i thought the movie was poorly executed and unoriginal. i have seen nothing condemning the fact that the character and title we stolen from a far superior movie. it does get a mention from you and ebert (two of my favs) but if we let this laziness slide once, we are going to have a flood of half-baked movies with highjacked concepts. think: “the wrestler” starring matthew mcconaughey

    “…an extremely crack addicted, aging wrestler tries to mend ties with his son while sparking up a romance with the local grocery clerk.”

    we must stop this practice now

  8. Ken Hanke

    Is it in any way comparable to the other Bad Lieutenant?

    I saw the other one back when it was a “hot” item, but, apart from finding it sort of distasteful, I remember almost nothing about it. I can say I didn’t find this one distasteful, though I suspect a lot of people will. It’s a very hard film to talk about without giving too much away.

  9. Me

    Really? This one looks more distasteful to me from the trailer at least. Maybe even the word trashy could be used.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Really? This one looks more distasteful to me from the trailer at least. Maybe even the word trashy could be used

    If you use distasteful and trashy interchangeably, we’re not on the same page.

  11. Ken Hanke

    i have seen nothing condemning the fact that the character and title we stolen from a far superior movie. it does get a mention from you and ebert (two of my favs) but if we let this laziness slide once, we are going to have a flood of half-baked movies with highjacked concepts.

    I hardly think so. Whatever you think of this film, it’s a small scale affair that’s not going to make enough money to cause any such flood. Really, you’re putting too much stock in the title. If it had been called Good Cop Goes Wrong, I doubt the issue would arise. If the movie actually reminds me of anything, it seems to me to be — thematically — A Serious Man in reverse.

    Anyway, we already get movies that imitate other movies all the time. We always have. The use of The Bad Lieutenant title strikes me as more an incomprehensible joke than anything.

  12. Me

    Trashy’s a little worse in my opinion. I don’t really remember anything distasteful about the original it all played to what the film was about.

  13. Me

    Trashy’s a little worse in my opinion. I don’t really remember anything distasteful about the original it all played to what the film was about.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Trashy’s a little worse in my opinion.

    This will probably come as no shock, but my take is exactly the opposite.

  15. FlyingBurrito

    Very worthy of the four and a half stars. An excellent dark comedy, so to speak. Cage is off the hook old-style and the movie is idiosyncratic and quirky just like Nouvelle Orleans. And it’s a good story too. Lots of nice little story arcs. A really well done little film, immeasurably entertaining.

  16. It doesn’t matter whether he’s terrorizing elderly women in a nursing home
    The second scene in the nursing home provoked the first of several rounds of applause when I saw this.

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