by Tony Dayoub
Forget what you've read so far about Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Those that insist the only way to truly appreciate this movie is to view it as a comedy have it all wrong—unless they are referring to Nicolas Cage's only-guy-who-gets-the-joke approach to playing the coke-addled cop, Terence McDonagh. No, Werner Herzog's post-Katrina policier is less comedy and more opera. From its ripped-from-the-headlines setting to the often stagey mise en scène (as seen in the picture above) to the electrifying heightened performance by Cage, Bad Lieutenant derives its quirky style from the verismo-style operas of composers like Puccini—melodramas which tended to focus on the often sleazy stories of the lower classes. And it has less of a relationship with the original Bad Lieutenant (1992) than it does with another quirky detective film by, of all people, Robert Altman.
Abel Ferrara's original Bad Lieutenant is a gritty classic about a nameless cop (Harvey Keitel) who lies, cheats, and steals his way through the film hoping to pay off his gambling debts before he's killed. Once his impending death is almost assured he becomes obsessed with finding redemption by solving a rape case in which the victim was a pious nun. Herzog's film is a spiritual descendant to some extent. Cage's McDonagh is a dirty cop on the corrupt New Orleans police force who often shakes down young couples leaving nightclubs for any drugs they might be carrying to satisfy his own addiction. He isn't quite caught in mid-downward spiral as Keitel's cop was. Instead, Herzog shows us the entire arc of how the decorated McDonagh acquires his habit, the depths of depravity he sinks to, and the surrounding bad influences that contribute to perpetuating his cycle of addiction.
Much of these influences stem from a cast of disgraceful characters stuck in their own personal hells. Tom Bower plays his alcoholic ex-cop father; Eva Mendes plays McDonagh's girlfriend Frankie, a high-priced call girl; and Xhibit plays his new business associate, local drug dealer Big Fate. With Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Brad Dourif, Shawn Hatosy, Val Kilmer, and Michael Shannon all cast in supporting parts, the cast is large and interesting enough to rival one of Robert Altman's ensembles. But the similarities don't end there. As in your typical Altman film, one gets a keen sense of place. Post-hurricane New Orleans, is even slimier and more dangerous than it was before, a place where it's not uncommon to find a fatal car accident caused by an alligator crossing a road or an heinous crime such as the execution of an African immigrant family—the result of the father turning to dealing to support his family in the severely economically depressed city. In Altman's The Long Goodbye, Elliot Gould's Marlowe is not so strange to viewers as much as his hippie-era L.A. and its oddball characters are. Similarly, Cage's compromised police detective is not so different from his film noir ancestors as much as the contemporary decaying New Orleans and its dubious citizens are. One scene in the new film—involving a trio of thugs threatening to cut Frankie if McDonagh doesn't pay his debts—is as charged and nerve-wracking as a scene in The Long Goodbye that predates it, where gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) mutilates his own girlfriend's face by crushing a coke bottle against it.
But unlike Gould, who plays it low-key through most of The Long Goodbye, Cage is on another wavelength. As he should be. Unlike Gould's cool, detached Marlowe, who simply desires to be left alone, McDonagh is a debased man still haunted by his inclinations to be a savior. One interesting choice by Cage is to emphasize McDonagh's twisted psyche through his back injury, an injury that spurs his later addiction to coke and Vicodin. Cage walks zombie-like through the film with one shoulder hunched in a rather obvious callback to Klaus Kinski, another lunatic actor who usually performed as Herzog's alter ego in films like Nosferatu (1979) and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). The effect is endearing as the increasingly manic Cage, dark circles highlighting his pale blue eyes, comes across as a fascinating throwback to the silent actors—heightened emotions and all—in much the same way Kinski did as the vampire Nosferatu in Herzog's own remake of the classic silent film.
The result is Cage's strongest performance in years in a cop film directed by a European—a European that gets it more right than any of his American counterparts have since Joe Carnahan's Narc (2002). Herzog goes for broke in the bizarre Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, fusing his skewed vision of America's degradation onto the hunched back of his well-meaning but depraved cop. Take Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), move it to New Orleans and give it enough hallucinogenic drugs until it suffers a psychotic break, and you might start to imagine what this Bad Lieutenant is like.