Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans (2009)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Xzibit
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Written by: William M. Finklestein
Rating: 4.5 (out of five)
This review contains possible spoilers! The final paragraphs contain what may be considered spoilers. While I do not consider them spoilers, as I don’t think they actually spoil anything, some may take offense. Consider this fair warning.
It’s now been over 72 hours since I watched Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans. There’s a reason this review is going up significantly later than my viewing. I didn’t know what to say. I’ve decided that is actually a good thing. Maybe even a great thing.
When I first saw the listings for a movie called “Bad Lieutenant 2” I couldn’t help but laugh. I’ve not seen the original Bad Lieutenant (1992) starring Harvey Keitel. Then I saw Herzog was directing and I was flabbergasted. Why would he remake something like that?
Turns out it’s not a remake nor is it a sequel. Herzog claims to have never seen the original, and the only reason the phrase “Bad Lieutenant” is in the title is that the producers felt it would boost the film’s profile.
Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant follows Terrence McDonagh (Cage), a veteran cop in New Orleans. The film is set in the aftermath of Katrina. In the opening scene, Terrence takes a leap into a flooded landing to save a criminal. For his heroism, he is promoted to Lieutenant and left with an irreparable back injury that causes him severe pain.
As Terrence’s pain worsens the Vicodin his doctor prescribed just isn’t enough. As a cop, he has access to the store rooms where the confiscated drugs are. Guess what happens?
Terrence begins a terrible slide into hardcore drug usage. His girlfriend, Frankie (Mendes), is a prostitute, and assists Terrence get his fix when he needs it. His father and step-mother are alcoholics, though his father is trying to go through AA again.
In one of the more uncomfortable scenes I’ve ever watched, Terrence follows a young man and his “date” out of a nightclub into a vacant parking lot. Flashing his red and blue lights, he explains to them that they “match a description” and to give him all their drugs. They do, and as the young man pleads with him to not report anything, Terrence begins to rape the woman. And he forces the young man to watch. And Herzog forces us to watch.
Then the hallucinations begin. Iguanas and alligators and breakdancing souls begin distracting Terrence as he tries to do his day job. Although it’s not clear if it’s really a “job” to Terrence any longer.
Throughout all this, tying all of it together, is a high profile murder case, taking Terrence deep into the underground drug scene in New Orleans. The murder story is a MacGuffin, something to keep the viewer interested in something that seems normal. This is the great irony of Bad Lieutenant: a horrible murder seems acceptable and commonplace next to Terrence.
In some ways this film seems almost like a retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Terrence develops a hump and almost limps. He plows through obstacles with ruthless efficiency, setting up the pieces well ahead of time. His insanity and instability grows the further he digs himself.
Cage is absolutely phenomenal as the drug addled Terrence. His portrayal of addiction and violence (both against others and against one’s self) is frightening. There is not a single moment where you look at this sad figure of a cop and think “Hey, that’s Nicolas Cage!” One of the best performances of the year without a doubt.
This is not an easy movie to watch. It is hard, in your face, unrelenting, and uncompromising. Herzog has found a great partner with Cage. They have no qualms about getting dirty and taking you right down with them.
The first shot is of a water snake swimming along and a convict near drowning. It ends with Terrence slumped in front of a giant glass aquarium of swimming creatures with the convict he saved sitting beside him, the fish circling endlessly in their tanks. Did we just go through two-hours of personal hell only to begin again? Is this the beginning of the end? The beginning of another downfall after what was almost a successful return to normalcy? At one point Terrence asks “Do fish have dreams?”
Herzog isn’t afraid to leave us wondering. Are you?
Herzog on Bad Lieutenant, Singing Iguanas, and Prop Cocaine: http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2009/09/director_werner_herzog_on_the.html