Monday, June 7, 2010


Directed by Werner Herzog

Starring Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer

An Italian mobster and his muscled guards attempt to extract money from a corrupt cop in cahoots with a
New Orleans drug dealer. The attempt goes bad, and the mobster and his muscle fall after the drug dealer has his posse pull some triggers. "Shoot him again", says the corrupt cop after the smoke settles and the posse relaxes. "What for?", inquires one of the trigger-men. The camera pans over to the dead mobster as a mo-hawked break-dancer dressed in the mobster's clothes flips and spins on the floor next to his body. "His soul is still dancing", replies the corrupt cop.

So goes a scene from Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a strange film on all fronts that shares the first part of its title with a 1992 film directed by Abel Ferrara and starring Harvey Keitel but nothing else. As a matter of fact, Herzog has claimed he has never seen Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (and neither have I, admittedly) and insists Port of Call New Orleans has no relation to the almost 20 year old film.

The film opens as Sergeant Terence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) and his partner Steve Pruit (a criminally underused Val Kilmer) clean out a prison locker in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Realizing a prisoner is still locked in his cell even as water rises above his neck, the two make bets on how long the convict will last before he drowns. After making a bet with Pruit, McDonagh decides to save the trapped man and inadvertently hurts his back. Advised by his doctor that he'll endure years of pain, McDonagh is nonetheless promoted to Lieutenant for his good deed. While his professional life takes off his personal life takes a crack-pipe hit: now addicted to painkillers and coke, McDonagh, by all means a crackerjack when it comes to police work, becomes the most corrupt cop in the The Big Easy. He takes sexual favors in exchange for arrest leniency. He steals money from his girlfriend Frankie's clients (she's a prostitute). He snorts cocaine before canvasing a crime scene. He tortures a sickly old woman for information on a triple homicide. A triple homicide that could launch his career even further than he's already made it. If he can just stop being the biggest prick on the force.

The main attraction for watching BL: POCNO is to get to see a film directed by a man as unhinged as Werner Herzog staring an actor as unhinged as Nicholas Cage. There's been debate going on for years about Cage: one side believes the man can't and has never been able to act in his life. The other side (the side that is right) knows the man can turn in a great performance (Leaving Las Vegas, Matchstick Men, Snake-Eyes, Adaptation, Kick-Ass) but instead chooses to embrace the wacky side of his persona in films that simply aren't built to be wacky. Cage is an odd bird, but films like National Treasure aren't odd, just mainstream fluff. Give Cage the chance to fully unload and he's about as fun to watch as just about any actor you can name.

And unload he does in this film. With his hunched shoulders and thinning helmet-hair, McDonagh at first glance appears to be the most pathetic man of the law this side of Barney Fife. But his face betrays a barely concealed rage; rage at the pain he endured because of his heroic rescue (of a criminal), rage at his alcoholic stepmother and AA attending father. Rage at his hooker girlfriend for not bringing in enough money. Rage at the NOLA PD for not allowing him to conduct a homicide investigation the way he wants to. There isn't a scene in Bad Lieutenant: POCNO where McDonagh isn't a simmering bundle of drug-fueled nerves. Yet his rage is somehow controllable. Rarely does he strike out at those closest to him, instead choosing to take his outbursts to the street. Whether shaking down a young couple coming out of a club for drugs and sexual favors or telling a star football player he'll be arrested for purchasing marijuana if he doesn't throw a football game McDonagh has money on, Terence is constantly using his position as a Lieutenant to purge his rage. And Cage's performance is nothing short of pulverizing.

The irony of McDonagh's corruptness is that, in the end, it actually makes him a better cop, and Herzog understands the cruel reality of this. Once again the director displays his alternately loving and fearful attitudes towards nature in this film. The movie opens up with a shot of a snake swimming through water. McDonagh hallucinates and sees iguanas. Two men sit in front of a gigantic aquarium filled with sharks (quite frankly the most striking shot of the film and one of my favorites of the last decade). Throughout, Herzog is constantly comparing McDonagh to his lizard and finned counterpoints. These animals can be dangerous, but they're primitive and get the job done by any means necessary. If there's one director that there's a thin line between the cold and uncaring attitude of nature and the unstable reality of human emotion it's Werner Herzog.

For being a film that seemed to have started out as a way to capitalize on the provocative and cult-like status of a film that features full frontal Keitel nudity, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a surprisingly great and well made film (which also happens to feature from great supporting work from Brad Dourif, Jennifer Coolidge, Irma P. Hall, and Michael Shannon) . It has a few flaws - Val Kilmer's little screentime and an ending that drags on about ten minutes too long - but it's a seriously fun watch, and not since his many collaborations with Klaus Kinski has Werner Herzog found an actor as crazy as Nicholas Cage to make some seriously bizarre movie magic with.


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