Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Xzbit, Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge
Running Time: 121 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is two hours of Nicolas Cage acting crazy, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. For Cage fans it's a must-see and even his biggest detractors would probably want to check it out just for curiosity's sake. Even though this often hysterical film doesn't have much of a point and fell considerably short of my expectations, I would feel too guilty not recommending it, if only for its insanely high entertainment value. It's so concerned with putting its star in as many jaw-dropping, scenery chewing situations as possible that it forgets we also have to care about the character he's playing and the case he's investigating. It's fun mind you, but in a way it's similar to another remake Cage starred in a few years ago, The Wicker Man, where he ran around in punching women in a bear costume. He could have worn the costume again here with the key difference being that this film's actually made well and almost seems to take itself seriously at times. His work makes up for most of the script's shortcomings.
The film opens in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans Police Sergeant Terrance McDonagh (Cage) suffers a permanent back injury rescuing a drowning convict. When we see him six months later he's being promoted to lieutenant for his heroic actions, but can barely even function because of his addiction to vicodin and cocaine. Physically and emotionally unfit to handle any investigation, he's naturally assigned the biggest one involving an execution-style multiple homicide involving a local drug kingpin named Big Fate (Alvin "Xzbit" Joiner). He's also gotten himself into a mess with an important client of his hooker girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), owes money to his bookie (Brad Dourif) and is about to be stripped of his badge and gun by the Feds. On top of all that, he has to watch over a teenage witness and care for his alcoholic father and sister (Jennifer Coolidge). A long list of responsibilities when you're strung out 24/7.
The screenplay by William Finkelstein isn't so much concerned about the homicide or exploring character motivation. Maybe it was before Werner Herzog was attached to direct and Cage signed on to star, but it sure isn't now. Nor does bear any resemblance to its namesake, 1992's Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel, other than that both center around a corrupt cop. This movie is scene after scene of Nicholas Cage going as far off the deep end as humanly possible. Of course, that's nothing new. He's always accused of overacting but this time he's deliberately doing it so you can just imagine the results. Watch Cage hold up a pharmacy. Watch Cage get high before interrogating a suspect. Watch Cage disconnect an old lady's oxygen supply while threatening her at gunpoint. It goes on and on until finally running its course and it takes a lot longer to run its course than I expected, mainly because Cage is such a strong screen presence, even more so when he's allowed to fly off the rails like this.
By the time the film was over I couldn't even remember the name of the protagonist and I only refer to him here as "Cage," which is revealing when you think about it. You could almost draw a comparison with the criticisms that were leveled against Jack Nicholson for his portrayal of the Joker in 1989's Batman. That it was just Jack being Jack. I disagreed then because I felt the nature of the character called for that kind of over-the-top performance. This is a little different. It's a police procedural that doesn't have anything particularly important to say and little going for it outside of watching Cage lose it on screen. But, honestly, that's a lot. I don't know if it's a great performance but it's definitely a compelling one and there's no way this movie could have worked with another actor in the role. There's an attempt made to flesh out his relationship with Mendes' hooker and while her and Cage are much better together here than they were in Ghost Rider, I can't say there's much emotional investment. Val Kilmer's role as his partner is criminally underwritten and his screen time so minimal you wonder why his name even appears in the credits. It's all about Cage.
Not even upstaged by a pair of charismatic iguanas, he's the entire driving force behind the picture and that's it with everyone else in the plot existing as merely a means for him to act out. By the final third of the movie the case itself (which is so run-of-the mill it could be a Law and Order episode) is all but discarded in favor of watching Cage cut loose as only he can, engaging in behavior completely at odds with the story, but perfectly in sync with the lunatic he's portraying. It's almost as if Herzog said, "Screw it. No one cares about the case anymore anyway." As exhaustive and frustrating as it is, we do root for Terrence's redemption because Cage forces us to.
A big deal was made about the decision to shift the original film's New York setting to post-Katrina New Orleans but the movie could have taken place anywhere and it wouldn't have made the slightest bit of difference. The circumstances surrounding Hurricane Katrina are about as necessary to the story as it was in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, if not less so. And that might be the biggest disappointment of the film for me. While setting it in New Orleans isn't distateful in any way, it feels like key opportunities were missed in conveying the feel of a very specific time and place. But what thankfully isn't lost are the parallels between the city and the protagonist, both of which were faced with tragic circumstances then eaten away by corruption.
Supposedly this film was green lighted without the blessing or support of the original's director, Abel Ferrera, who's gone on record slamming the production. But the film is so over the top and shares so little in common with his that it's hardly worth getting worked up about. If anything, the 1992 film represents exactly the kind of movie that should be remade. Herzog really had the right idea in molding just the shell of the original into a new story that explores different themes and other filmmakers would be wise to keep that approach in mind when adapting from previous works. I'm just still kind of at a loss as to my exact thoughts on the film because it's difficult digesting it as anything other than a guilty pleasure. It really needs another viewing, which I'd give it with very little hesitation. Despite a myriad of problems, Bad Lieutenant is compulsively watchable in a train wreck sort of way.