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Film Review: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009; Directed by Werner Herzog)

Difficult-to-pigeonhole German auteur Werner Herzog’s odd post-Katrina moral allegory is handcuffed by awkward attempts at reproducing crime genre elements and language, second-rate production values, and a mouthful of a title that needlessly references a movie it has basically nothing to do with. But it produces worthwhile bursts of off-the-wall inspiration, mostly due to Herzog’s favouring of tongue-in-cheek non-sequiturial tangents and his lead actor Nicolas Cage’s very peculiar performance as the titular corrupt drug-addict cop in a near-lawless post-disaster Big Easy.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is fundamentally a B-movie. Herzog embraces the unsavoury pedigree that this classification implies, while Cage paints masterfully in the palette of the trashy lower-level cinematic crapfest that his post-Oscar-winning career has virtually single-handedly kept on life support. Cage is Terence McDonagh, a coke-snorting New Orleans detective who earned the titular rank reluctantly saving a prisoner from a flooded jailhouse after Hurricane Katrina. The choice to help the man afflicted him with lifelong chronic back pain, and Cage shuffles through the movie hunched over and just slightly physically twisted. He’s rather more morally twisted, ripping off his drugs from the evidence room, placing large bets on college football with a bookie (Brad Dourif), abusing his position to manipulate and bully the public to score more narcotics and other favours, and mooching off of his sort-of girlfriend, a prostitute named Frankie (Eva Mendes).

All of this aside, McDonagh is good police, as they might have said on The Wire. He investigates the brutal drug-trade-related murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants and bravely tilts at a powerful and seemingly untouchable drug lord called Big Fate (Xzibit) that is his chief suspect. McDonagh’s other entanglements begin to trespass onto the case, however, and he is soon juggling the demands from his bookie to pay his debts, from his police superiors to answer for his rogue procedures, and from the hired thugs of the cocksure son of a major developer whom he confronted for beating up on Frankie (a very funny Shea Whigham) that is now extorting money from him in revenge.

McDonagh is nasty stuff, make no mistake, even if screenwriter William Finkelstein gives him a humanizing scene or two with Frankie and a sterling silver spoon from his youth. A grimy and uncomfortable scene in which he steals a young clubbing couple’s drugs and forces the boy to watch as the girl has sex with him rises to the near-baroque heights of human monstrosity that Herzog delved into in his best-known fictional features, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. But more often Herzog seems to be dabbling in hard-boiled material that is not his forte, especially when it comes to African-American urban culture, where the movie is on near-pantomime-like footing. One feels that this should be less slapdash in its depiction of human corruption and more fantasmagorically nightmarish in its imagination of an altered social reality.

Cage does better with this dodgy material (he has seen a lot of it, recently, after all). He’s in some roiling, torturous purgatory between the sort of unintentionally hilarious scenery-chewing that has made this once-acclaimed actor into internet meme fodder and a performance of genuine integrity and ambiguous verve. Indeed, Cage seems at times to be channeling the bearing, the left-field eccentricity, and the edgy unpredictably of his director, whose gnomic, inscrutable Bavarian-accented image has become more well-known than his often-challenging and transcendent films.

That said, The Bad Lieutenant is not much worth the effort, except for two sequences of trademarked head-scratching loopiness from Herzog. In the first and most bizarrely memorable, McDonagh hallucinates a pair of iguanas on a table during a surveillance stakeout. His colleagues dismiss his insistence that he can see them, but what might have been a throwaway drug joke becomes something infinitely stranger. Herzog cuts in a minute or more of shaky, out-of-focus close-ups of the lizards, their impassive reptilian visages, their scaly skin, and scores it with Johnny Adams’ 1968 version of “Release Me”. Animals have long fascinated Herzog, be they grizzly bears or squirrels or demented penguins. This film features dogs, an aquarium of marine life, and a roadkill alligator whose juvenile offspring gets a similar sympathetic close-up as it skulks away from an accident scene.

The iguanas return for a later cameo in the other deeply weird moment in the film: after a tense and bloody standoff between criminal belligerents ends in a bloodbath, McDonagh encourages Big Fate’s henchman to shoot one of their deceased rivals again because “His soul is still dancing.” This soul is made material in the form of a head-spinning breakdancer, whose rhythmic movements collapse into immobility with another gunshot. But first McDonagh watches this souls dance for a bit, a deranged but blissful smile on his face. Even in a mostly unremarkable piece like this, you can never wholly discount Werner Herzog, never turn away lest he pull out such an instance of inspired lunacy. What does it mean? Beats me. But that soul sure can dance.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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