DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog
PLOT: While investigating the slaughter of an immigrant family, a pill-popping and coke-
sniffing New Orleans cop’s penchant for gambling and for rolling his escort girlfriend’s clients gets him into deep trouble with his department and with dangerous men; to save his life, clear his name, and crack the case, he must pull off several double crosses while strung out and sleep deprived.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Watched with a doggedly literal mind, this version of Bad Lieutenant could almost be seen as a straightforward thriller/police procedural, but most who check out this flick will come away with the nagging feeling that there’s something exceptionally strange afoot in NOLA these days. Less than a handful of hallucinations dog our drug-soaked antihero through the port, but the visions that do appear pack one hell of a wallop. Cage’s jittery, over-the-top performance and the enigmatic, dreamlike ending Herzog supplies notch two more points in the “weird” column.
COMMENTS: In 1992 underground auteur Abel Ferrara made a notorious movie about a corrupt New York City cop who shoots heroin, smokes crack, molests teenage girls, shakes down criminals for bribes, and tries to solve a case involving a raped nun while hallucinating and dodging a bookie he owes an unpayable debt. Bad Lieutenant was an overwrought, magnificent Christian parable that sought to demonstrate God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness by presenting a character that audiences couldn’t forgive.
In 2009 renowned German auteur Werned Herzog made a movie about a corrupt New Orleans cop who snorts heroin, smokes crack, molests young women over the age of 21, rolls johns for drugs and money, and tries to solve a case involving a murdered family while hallucinating and dodging a mobster he owes an unpayable debt. Herzog defiantly claimed never to have heard of Ferrara or the first Bad Lieutenant movie, but screenwriter William M. Finkelstein notably kept his mouth shut.
It’s a good thing that Herzog, who apparently wanted to title the film Port of Call New Orleans, relented and let the producers include “Bad Lieutenant” in the title, because it defused almost certain criticism that the story was a Bad Lieutenant ripoff and put critics instead in the mindset of focusing on the ample tonal differences between the two movies. Many reviewers even asserted that Herzog’s film has “nothing at all” to do with Ferrara’s, beyond the two depraved, over-the-top performances of Keitel and Cage. Keitel spent his movie cursing, slurring and drooling, and is most remembered for kneeling in a church, mewling and spitting out half-formed epithets as he hallucinated a visitation from Jesus Christ. His was a literally and figuratively naked performance; asked to be completely sincere, Keitel risked looking ridiculous. Cage, on the other hand, never disrobes; he sleeps in the same rumpled tan jacket night after night (on the rare occasions he does sleep). His jittery, disjointed, often deliriously hammy performance is like Hunter Thompson as assayed by Dennis Hopper on a meth binge. Gaunt, bursting into laughter at dangerous times, imagining iguanas, and pinching off old ladies’ oxygen supplies during interrogations: Cage is clearly having fun being bad. In Cage, Herzog figures he’s found his next Klaus Kiniski, a much mocked actor whose scenery-chewing proclivities he can turn from an embarrassment into an asset by matching him to mad material. Nic even gets off what may be the best gonzo line of the decade: “Shoot him again! His soul’s still dancing!,” delivering it with an unhinged spontaneous delight that it suggests an ad-lib (the accompanying visual, the movie’s most memorable, proves it ain’t).
The difference between Keitel’s Lieutenant and Cage’s is like the difference between a bag of uncut heroin and uncut cocaine: they’re both white crystalline powders that melt your mind, but you’d never mistake the effects of one for the other. The tone in Port of Call: New Orleans is more detached and ironic than the bruisingly sincere New York film; at times, it’s a black comedy and a parody of a police procedural. It’s hard to imagine an uneasy, ridiculous scene like the one where the iguanas appear to sing “Please Release Me” in Ferrara’s hellish Gotham. At one point, the perpetually inebriated Cage find himself simultaneously toting around a dog, a kid, and a hooker with a heart of gold; it’s as if the script couldn’t make up its mind on a humanizing companion cliché, so it winkingly decides to cover all the bases at once.
Despite the lighter tone and the leavening humor, Port of Call New Orleans shouldn’t be mistaken for a comedy. Cage’s Terrence McDonagh is a more complex character than Keitel’s nameless Lieutenant—who was little more than walking, fornicating, blubbering sin—and has a different character arc. Bad as McDonagh is, he’s not thoroughly evil. He’s given a backstory to explain his drug addiction and slide into cynicism, he shows loyalty to those closest to him, and he does have a legitimate devotion to solving the murder case. The script highlights opportunities when he could have abused his legal authority, but chose to back off. As he says, in an ethical double entendre near the end of the film, he “has bad days,” though more of them than most of us, to be sure. McDonagh is an unexpectedly realistic character, a true antihero with a few virtues that we can root for even while we disapprove of him. He’s a more nuanced and mature Lieutenant than the original, which is not to say a better one; each script chooses the correct spin to put on the character for that film’s purpose.
McDonagh needs a few redeeming characteristics, because the plot requires us to root for him. He is, after all, ultimately on the side of justice, at least where his own crimes aren’t concerned. The double-stranded story is surprisingly engaging. The investigation of the massacre of the Senegalese family draws us in, but eventually McDongah’s own misbehaviors pile up on him and push that plotline into the background. The drugs, the gambling debts, shaking down the wrong johns, the internal affairs agents sniffing around… McDonagh may have been able to juggle these issues for years, but they all come crashing down on his head at once at the worst possible time. Cage’s cop sinks to the lowest level imaginable, into a septic hole with slimy walls that it should be impossible to claw his way out of. Then, the script amazes us as, starting anew from nothing, playing off one faction against another and taking advantage of some outrageous good luck, he rebuilds his position.
By the end, McDonagh even ends up better off than he started. Lest we think vice has been rewarded, he even decides to clean up his act—or does he? True, the observing iguanas slither away into the bayou, but the Lieutenant he has his backsliding moments, his “bad days” when he rapes women in parking lots and holes up in a sleazy hotel room with a bag of heroin. Still, the good fortune Cage strikes at the end of the film is so incredible, his immediate transformation so unlikely, that we can’t help but be reminded that Cage’s last good role prior to this one was in Adaptation, and we can’t help but wonder if the director is hoping we remember that role, too. To puzzle us the more Herzog adds a highly enigmatic, “fishy” epilogue which concludes with a long shot of Cage and an unlikely companion sitting in front of an aquarium, as if lounging in the Mississippi by a pier once again submerged under Katrina’s waters.
The original Bad Lieutenant superficially ended on a downer, but there was no question about redemption: you either took the movie on faith, or you didn’t. Herzog is agnostic as to whether salvation is possible, and won’t let the audience know for sure if the ending is grace or delusion. Does Cage remain forever evil at heart? Or was he ever truly depraved—that is, in the Biblical sense? Ferrara knew the answer, and Herzog doesn’t; but they both make their case as well as it can be made.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…punchy, seriously strange (if less seriously essential) film… [Cage is] back in the resplendently weird form of films like Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart…”–Michelle Orange, Movieline (contemporaneous)