In 1992, vocal independent director Abel Ferrara teamed up with Harvey Keitel to make Bad Lieutenant, the story of an abusive and sleazy cop of the NYPD charged with solving the case of a raped nun. While he was self-indulgent, scandalous and even downright cruel, there existed a glimmer of humanity in the man that few rarely saw. I’m talking of the nameless Lieutenant here, not Ferrara. When revolutionary director Werner Herzog picked up the notion of the corrupt cop for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, Abel Ferrara loudly and repeatedly declared that everybody involved in it should drop dead, despite the fact that this is neither a remake nor a sequel. It’d be like calling Moonraker a remake of Goldfinger.
The film opens in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. The lead character of the title is one Terence McDonagh. He’s a bit of a selfish prick, keen to gamble and quick to dismiss the plight of others, but he’s still a cop in service to the public. Mostly. The events of the hurricane leave him with a back problem that puts him on Vicodin, which in turn leads to a whole slew of harder drugs and a lifestyle that verges on entirely self-destructive. If it weren’t for his work as a homicide detective, he’d unravel faster than a spool of yarn trapped in a spin cycle. But he does have that work, and he is good at it… when he’s not abusing his position to get whatever he wants from whomever he wants, whenever he wants.
This is going to be a divisive film. McDonagh is completely unapologetic in his pursuit of pleasure, intoxication and money. He’s either going to be seen as an unredeemable monster barely kept leashed by his ties to the police department, or the magnificent sort of crazy that just needs to be pointed in the right direction to get dizzying results. New Orleans is the perfect environment for him to fester, given its heady mix of music, magic, sleaze, indulgences and mystery. And I can’t think of an actor better equipped to give this character life than Nicholas Cage.
I’ve previously mentioned my affinity for the man, even when he’s being grossly mishandled. He, too, is a talent that requires a particular touch to get the most out of his manic energy. And McDonagh is just manic on his best days. The rest of the time he’s indulging in one behavior or another that’s going to land him square in an early grave, be it from overdosing or bullets. When they say “cop on the edge,” in the case of McDonagh, they mean it. Only in this case, that edge is the edge of total insanity. Cage projects this extremely well, etching the character of the bad lieutenant firmly in our minds and making his antics as memorable as they are deplorable.
Speaking of “the cop on the edge” in terms of movie cliches, there’s something I noticed as the film’s plot unfolded. There’s a teenager who witnessed the murders in question. McDonagh gets saddled with a dog. His girlfriend’s a hooker with a heart of gold. More and more of these get piled on, until one gets the impression that we’re not just watching a cop movie. We are, in a way, watching every cop movie ever, fed through the drug-stained filter of the bad lieutenant. These little tongue-in-cheek elements mixed with the noir nature of the case and its participants and the insanity of the lead character might have been too much for another director to handle, even the venerable Mr. Ferrara or even Tarantino, but not Werner Herzog. He makes it look easy.
Not only does Herzog mix these elements in just about the perfect balance, he underscores just how strange the world of McDonagh becomes. As quickly as we are made aware of the lead character’s skewed world view, the more adeptly that view is conveyed to us in a way so coherent our own masks of sanity may begin to slip. In most other productions, things like dancing souls or phantom iguana might seem like a totally out-of-nowhere, but here it’s only slightly more strange than some of the other stuff that happens. This is probably the most coherent incoherency you’ll see for quite some time, drive by the most memorable, sadistic and completely bonkers protagonist since American Psycho.
As I said, this is likely to be a divisive film. Some will appreciate the high-wire act Cage and Herzog are performing, others will wonder exactly how McDonagh pulls off some of the things that would make him a good cop if it weren’t for his off-duty habits, and still others will downright hate the thing due to the casual drug use, abusive language, violence, insanity and general sleaze. I feel that, whatever camp you fall into, you should check out Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans via the Netflix Instant service, because I guarantee you, you will not see anything like it any time soon, if ever again. The script is well-plotted, the acting is great on all fronts, the direction is top notch and the overall effect will stick with you long after the credits roll. Granted, you might want a shower to get that filthy stickiness off afterwards, but that’s up to the individual viewer. If nothing else, here is the perfect example of how to get the most out of Nicholas Cage, instead of sticking him in something completely lifeless like Trapped in Paradise. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans is anything but lifeless. It’s energetic, powerful, completely out of its mind, oblivious to any objections you might raise against it and while you might be wondering whether or not you want to watch it, let me assure you: it’s a bit like the One Ring. It wants to be watched.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
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