Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
For anyone who reads this blog regularly (the half dozen of you), the characteristics I constantly laud in a movie are easily distinguishable – a simple story and well developed characters. However when you’re dealing with Werner Herzog’s new piece, the idea of either being little more than what is the absolute “de minimus” standard is more absurd than his gonzo-esque flourishes. Yet inevitably, it’s impossible to hold these glaring issues against the end product.
Herzog has always been as polarizing a figure as he is laughed at, if not outright despised. Even the director of the original Bad Lieutenant wished him dead, a rather strange thought as the character embodied by Harvey Keitel is completely indistinguishable from that which we see here.
New Orleans police sergeant Terrance McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) was never a likable guy. When sent to clean out a locker post-Katrina, he notices a prisoner who was never transferred and is within moments of drowning in his cell. Eventually he decides to save him but not before taking bets on how long it would take him to kick the bucket. This same rescue proves to be his undoing as it leaves him with both crippling back pain and a promotion to lieutenant with increased responsibilities. Such a battle scar runs deep, causing his already addictive personality to do almost anything in search of relief from the never ending pain, even endangering his first lead role in the execution-style killings of a Senegalese drug pusher and his family.
Such a story depends upon Cage as the lead, with the remaining characters littered throughout being reduced to little more than playthings with which he either seeks gratification or those that enable him in his increasingly depraved behaviour. There are issues such as, are we to believe that it was the same rescue we witness that led to such actions or were they always there, like his relationship with hooker Frankie (Eva Mendes). In principle, we should tut and roll our eyes at the very thought of such basic ideas never being at least alluded to (or at least I should), but generally the only lag comes with the start of the movie, before McDonagh is mid spiral and Cage fully embraces his role (and likewise his surroundings).
Many will not embrace such an anti-hero, if he is even that but the simple pairing of a dank and festering hulk of humanity being placed firmly within a generally accepted area with those same qualities (at least at the time portrayed) is nothing short of genius. It truly is comic opportunism at its best.
Cage has already made a career for himself playing the edgy and often depressed characters whose own melancholia is verging on the insane or paralyzing, yet the only thing that hinders him here, does so to prevent him from committing acts of kindness or genuine good. If the original was a social commentary and redemptive tale, Herzog’s version, although running away from itself in basic structure, revels in how little it cares about the morality behind the acts, only seeking to capture what happens when a man’s head begins to explode from the inside out.
The more absurd elements come with the inclusion of fish, iguanas, breakdancing souls and an ending that makes little sense but all are at least so self-assured and direct in delivery that it is neigh on impossible for them not to at least elicit a giggle.
This is a movie that will doubtlessly be either adored or reviled with little room in the middle for compromise. One thing is for sure though, it’s definitely not like any other and that stands in its favour.