Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – 2009 – dir. Werner Herzog
When people ask me what I think of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which is only a few years old but has a justifiable cult following all the same, I hedge a little. I tell them that it’s absolutely great…just not by typical crime drama standards. It is, I explain, a film that makes its own rules, and is a success by its own measure. Roger Ebert (who gave Port of Call four stars) wrote that this is a film that’s “not about plot, but about seasoning. Like New Orleans cuisine, it finds that you can put almost anything in a pot if you add the right spices and peppers and simmer it long enough.” That sounds about right to me. Port of Call fascinates not because of its plot twists, but rather because of its weird flourishes, most of which have already been lovingly catalogued by other critics: scenes shot from an iguana’s eye view, a murdered man’s soul launching into an elaborate break dancing routine, or Shea Whigham as an abusive john who punctuates most of his statements with a throaty, “Oh YEAH!”
Of course, many of the film’s biggest and most memorable flourishes come from its star, Nicolas Cage, one of our most unusual leading men. Cage is an actor who likes to go big in his performances, and who rarely makes obvious moves. He tends to favor outsized characterizations that stray from realism, and since many audiences and critics have come to equate realistic performances with good performances, it has taken some of us a long time to warm up to his style (and some of us perhaps aren’t fully there yet). But I think it’s safe to say that most fans of Port of Call New Orleans have managed to stumble onto Cage’s rare wavelength. Here he offers up a surreal and largely comic performance laced with some sneakily authentic desperation, and makes audiences laugh – and sometimes ache – right along with him.
Cage’s character Terence McDonagh is a New Orleans police lieutenant who suffers a back injury when rescuing a criminal from a cell during a flood caused by Hurricane Katrina. The injury leads to McDonagh’s addiction to prescribed painkillers as well as just about any street drug that he can get his hands on, and so Cage carries himself with a tortured, Nosferatu-like posture in many scenes, and sometimes adopts strange vocal tics based on which drug McDonagh is currently meant to be high on. A number of the film’s most buzzed-about scenes include improvisation on Cage’s part, such as when he tells a group of drug dealers, “I’ll kill all of you,” before adding the non sequitur, “To the break of dawn!”
The “To the break of dawn” ad lib might be the quintessential Port of Call New Orleans moment, because it finds a fairly standard and straight-faced crime drama scene – a corrupt cop threatens some drug dealers – disrupted by a bit of humor that is somehow both inexplicable and pitch-perfect. “To the break of dawn” may be nonsensical, but it is also familiar, something from a stable of almost-interchangeable movie tough guy utterances. (And Cage, a veteran of many an action film, knows from movie tough guy utterances.) The improvisatory frills in Cage’s performance give the film much of its off-kilter, strangely compelling energy.
Indeed, it seems that Cage was just what Herzog was looking for with this film, which the director has frequently described as a kind of twisted comedy. Herzog – who brought the iguanas and the break dancing soul to what was presumably a more conventional script from TV writer William M. Finkelstein – isn’t really that interested in the case that McDonagh is investigating, which is probably why it wraps up so quickly and comically at the film’s close. Herzog is interested in McDonagh’s strange visions and the tortured nature of a drug-addled psyche. He’s interested in the sadness of his peripheral characters, like Jennifer Coolidge as the bedraggled, alcoholic girlfriend of McDonagh’s father. He works in a wistful sidetrack where McDonagh remembers searching for pirate treasure in his backyard, turning up a spoon. He rushes the third act because he wants to get to the real point: McDonagh, unexpectedly and sublimely asking: “Do fish dream?” Herzog is giving his chosen genre a good tweaking here, but he’s also digging for the madness at the story’s heart.
Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, which shares a producer and part of its title with Port of Call New Orleans, is a gritty, ferocious exploration of redemption and guilt, with an unforgettably courageous and wounded performance by Harvey Keitel as that film’s corrupt and addicted police lieutenant. Port of Call New Orleans is something else entirely, but I think that it does have something important in common with Ferrara’s earlier work. Just as Ferrara and Keitel seem to be a director and performer on exactly the same page in the 1992 film, so Cage and Herzog seem to fully understand and appreciate each other’s vision for this film. Neither Cage nor Herzog is interested in making a film that adheres to any standards but its own, and perhaps that’s why Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a fractured triumph in its own right.