I think what’s most surprising about Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is how not insane it is. I mean, when I read an article months back with “Werner Herzog” and “crime film” in the same sentence, I somehow had two boners simultaneously. But when I read further in the article to see that it’s a Nicolas Cage movie and a remake of the Abel Ferrara movie starring Harvey Keitel (which I just remember as a poor man’s Scorsese film with too much of a bad thing: Keitel’s Kock), my excitement was tres fucking compromised. I figured that Bad Lieutenant: PoCNO would either be a masterpiece or a crazy, fascinating misfire. When the reviews started coming in, it seemed my predictions were correct, the film was extremely divisive among audiences and critics. Having finally caught that shit on DVD, I can tell you that there’s really nothing to argue about here: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is okay, the cinematic equivalent of a shrug.
Nicolas Cage plays the lieutenant of the title, Terence McDonaugh, a drug addict and degenerate gambler determined to bring down the man who killed an illegal Senegalese family in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina. When he’s not following leads he’s scoring from the property room or off the johns of his hooker girlfriend played by Eva Mendes. But when these drug sources get increasingly risky, McDonaugh ends up working for the main suspect in his case, Big Fade (“rapman” and noted “ride-pimper” Xzibit, for some reason). Now McDonaugh has to choose between his drug habit or his very soul (jesus, I can’t believe I just wrote that).
The story moves along well enough and it is occasionally amusing, but the script could have been tighter and deserves to be a hell of a lot funnier. It’s almost like they had an outline for a script, then just trusted Nicolas Cage to bring the goods. Granted, Cage is having a gay-old-time on the screen, but most of the good lines were in the trailer (I was distracted during “shoot him again, his soul is still dancing” scene by the use of music from Herzog’s Stroszek). Also, the cop shit in the film is particularly weak in a post-The Wire world, few procedural scenes ringing even remotely true, like Herzog has never even seen a shitty episode of Law & Order, much less a real crime scene (which is most likely true).
There’s also a lot of great actors popping up but given nothing to do. The great Michael Shannon gets a few short, who-gives-a-shit scenes as the prop room guy, Val Kilmer gets a scene or two as a fellow detective, Fairuza Balk plays a cop too hot for her uniform, and Jennifer Coolidge plays McDonaugh’s beer-swilling mother-in-law, but none of them get a chance to do anything but support Cage’s stab at a Klaus Kinski performance.
And the fact that Cage’s performance never truly makes it to the mythic levels of past Herzog directed greats like Kinski or Bruno S. is the film’s ultimate failing. Films like The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek, Fitzcarraldo, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God are all flawed films, but our trance-like fascination with the men at the center of them make them seem near perfect. Hell, that’s the secret to damn near every successful documentary Herzog has made too (watch Grizzly Man immediately). The fact that the subject of this film is simply not fascinating in the least makes the film seem unsuccessful, unnecessary – like I said: a fucking shrug. Perhaps Herzog just thought that with a massive-presence actor like Cage and a vaguely interesting character, magic would strike during production. I’m sad to say that that wasn’t the case.
But like I said, it’s not a terrible film. I was fairly amused throughout and never bored. Hell, there were even a couple of good scenes, chief amongst them being when McDonaugh tortures a couple of old ladies (yeah, you read that right). So there, that shit’s crazy enough to let you know it’s not a total loss, but it’s also not the god-awful ironic appreciation-fest that some hipsters would have you believe. But then again, it’s not the modern masterpiece that Roger Ebert proposes either.