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“No, it’s not a remake.” –Werner Herzog
DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog
FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner, Val Kilmer
PLOT: Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop, suffers a permanent spinal injury when rescuing a convict neck-deep in floodwater from Hurricane Katrina. Shortly thereafter he is promoted to the rank of police lieutenant and develops an opiate addiction, accrues massive gambling debts, and finds himself investigating the murder of five Senegalese immigrants. Over the course of the case, he teams up with local crime kingpin, “Big Fate,” in the hopes of keeping his head above water.
- Abel Ferrara made the cult film Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel as a drug, sex and gambling addicted cop investigating the rape of a nun, in 1992. Port of Call: New Orleans is neither a sequel nor a true remake.
- The original New York City setting was changed at Nicolas Cage’s request in order to help New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. (How the gesture would accomplish this is unclear.)
- Director Werner Herzog claimed to never have seen Abel Ferrara‘s original, only signing on to the project because Cage requested him so to do.
- It took nearly a decade for Werner Herzog and Abel Ferrara to bury the hatchet after Ferrara expressed his dismay at the project going forward without any input from him.
- Adding to his list of “unlikely ingestibles”, Nicolas Cage inhaled baby powder every time his character snorted cocaine (or heroin).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: With the entire feature viewed from Lieutenant McDonagh’s perspective, its unreliability is a given—this is a man who loves his uppers, downers, and sleep deprivation. On the off chance the viewer considers taking his story at face value, this notion is disabused by a pair of phantom iguanas eyed suspiciously by McDonagh to the dulcet tones of “Please Release Me.”
TWO WEIRD THINGS: “There ain’t no iguana”; break-dancing soul
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cram a police procedural through the esoteric whims of Werner Herzog’s brain, then project this mishmash of corruption, drugs, nostalgia, and iguanas onto the frantic gesticulation of Nicolas Cage as a chronic back-pain sufferer going through some really heavy shit right now, and you have Bad Lieutenant.
Trailer for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
COMMENTS: Werner Herzog, by an almost objective reckoning, is an eccentric filmmaking genius. His stories combine the mundane and the sublime, be they 16th-century adventure yarns, 19th-century melodramas, or 21st-century police procedurals. He captures the ridiculousness of the human condition with both caustic bewilderment and deep sympathy for the subjects. Nicolas Cage is like porno: you know him when you see him. And as with porno, even if it’s bad porno, comfort can be taken in the fact that at least you’re watching porno. Er, Nicolas Cage. With Herzog’s original vessel for madness passing away in the early ’90s, it took almost two decades for the legendary director to come across another avatar for his contradictory visions of snide humanism. Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog are a match made in snark-house heaven, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a showcase of each’s mastery of his role.
Herzog’s movie is a slippery narrative featuring a slippery protagonist. The opening shot sets the murky tone: a river snake glides slickly through deep, dingy water, slipping its way through the slats of a prison cell. Evaristo Chavez is nearly submerged when police Sergeant Terence McDonagh (Cage) and his partner Stevie Pruit (Kilmer) happen to be sifting through a locker to pick up the Polaroids of their buddy’s naked wife. McDonagh discovers transfer papers amongst the smut, and thus the two boys in blue stumble across Chavez. Despite his $55 undies, McDonagh takes a plunge to unlock the convict, injuring his back in the process. The stunt lands him a promotion, and so McDonagh becomes the titular anti-hero, who is forced to slide around local thugs, mafioso, narcotics agents, and his own destructive predilections while attempting to bring about justice for a massacred family of five.
Bad Lieutenant is a police procedural to the core: evidence lockers, corrupt cops, gritty realism, casual violence, drugs, and all that. It is also a Herzog movie, to the core. His signature camera direction is found throughout: the hesitant walkthrough of the victims’ home, the uncomfortably comic close-ups of McDonagh wandering through a casino hunting an errant witness, and most of all in the “nature interludes.” From Aguirre, to Fitzcarraldo, to Invincible, to Bad Lieutenant, Herzog never needs an excuse to idle the camera on the local fauna. McDonagh makes a field trip to try to coax a traffic cop to cancel a speeding ticket; this brings him to a highway accident caused by an alligator. Mourning on the sidelines, we spend some long moments observing a second alligator, itself observing the highway proceedings, before it scurries away. There is a double sense of fatalism to this: the dead gator, of course, and the fickle spite of whatever god there may be. Man, nature—there’s an often brightly lit doom looming over us all in Herzog’s films.
Which brings us to Nicolas Cage, one of the few living actors who might be viewed as a force of nature; a film elemental. He can show restraint, but if he is on-screen, we’re typically waiting to see what madness will break through whatever decayed psyche valves he has in place. As Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, Cage is the perfect choice. Under the sure touch of a steady-handed—and exacting—director like Herzog, Cage’s McDonagh slinks through his days, his posture awkward, his nerves frayed. Whether philosophizing about “singularity of purpose” whilst smoking a joint with a murder suspect, glad-handing his much put-upon bookie, or tenderly giving the gift of a childhood spoon to his sweetheart, we believe him; much like we believe him when he’s suffocating an old woman to get information, threatening a car full of well-armed thugs that he’d “shoot [them] all… ’til dawn!”, or cackling while covered in cocaine in a drug lord’s mansion.
Nicolas Cage is where id and super-ego collide, and where man and nature commune. During a stakeout, McDonagh spies iguanas, whose existence is denied by the other cops present. But he knows they’re there, and so do we. Herzog shows them to us, the audience, over the course of some minutes of shaky-cam. They connect McDonagh, whose story is being told, directly to us, who are watching his story. He tries to ignore them, but can’t, and while we gaze good and close, there are times when McDonagh, in the out-of-focus background, gazes at them as well. Those iguanas break the fourth wall, the shimmering transparent screen that separates the hero from the spectator, and the feeling is as unsettling as it is comedic. Herzog takes the role of god, toying with McDonagh, and toying also with us.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“I wonder if Herzog immersed himself in this odd enterprise only if he would be allowed to inject hallucinatory reptiles (shot in trippy ultra close-ups like a cheapo late- 60s drug movie) into the mix?… they’re just another weird aside in a film drowning in them.”–Clint O’Connor, Cleveland Plain Dealer (contemporaneous)
“…a B movie worth seeing, but there are times the weirdness seems forced and the only thing that feels authentic is the suggestion that Cage might be more than a little mad.”–Philip Martin, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
FILMMAKER interview with Abel Ferrara – Primarily concerning the release of Ferrara’s film Mary, his vitriolic feelings toward Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant make for a hostile finish to the Q&A.
LIST CANDIDATE: BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS – This site’s original candidate review of the film.
HOME VIDEO INFO: While the titular character is loaded up on all manner of bonus substances, the Blu-ray/DVD combo (buy) is comparatively free from frills. There is a “digital photography book”, a “making of” featurette, a theatrical trailer, and (wait for it) an alternate trailer. Of course, if you’re buying this disc for the film, rest assured that it is transposed beautifully—both visually and aurally—so that you can enjoy every gun blast, cackle, night-club groping, and whimsical musical cue to the fullest.
As of this writing, Bad Lieutenant is available from multiple VOD and streaming outlets (see below).
2 thoughts on “20*. BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009)”
“Nicolas Cage is like porno: you know him when you see him. And as with porno, even if it’s bad porno, comfort can be taken in the fact that at least you’re watching porno. Er, Nicolas Cage.”
Sounds like a mission statement for our long-awaited Nicolas Cage series. Ready when you are!
Really glad to see this make the list. Wasn’t expecting it to be labeled as a Must-See, which is awesome. Absolutely adore this film.