Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is an essay in how something can go absolutely wrong despite the fact that on paper, all the right things appear to be gathered together to work harmoniously in service of something whose sum is greater than the parts themselves. The parts themselves alternately take over, or else totally disappear to the dramatic and disturbing undoing of this film. Truth be told, I didn’t want it to end up this way either – I was honestly curious about the results of this odd combination of talents.
Here’s the breakdown of the plot, before we go any further: Nicolas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a down and out New Orleans detective whose back problems have lead him to scrounge and scrape the underbelly of his profession looking for the hard drugs that offer his only source of relief. As with the first Bad Lieutenant (played by Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult classic), McDonagh doesn’t have much respect for the very laws he has sworn to uphold, nor does he spend much energy looking out for the citizens he has sworn to protect. Instead, all of the city is just one gigantic used piece of furniture – a couch whose soiled cushions and veiled crevices serve only as temporary shelter for bits of crack cocaine and narco-detritus. And like any good fiend, McDonagh’s compulsion for finding escape in his manic highs and lows only blossoms into something more and more tragic. He’s in love with a prostitute, played by Eva Mendes, who at some point complicates the relationship when she decides to get sober with the assistance of McDonagh’s father, a former cop and alcoholic. As he plays roulette with his life and with the law, Cage’s Bad Lieutenant sinks deeper and deeper into a pit of self-destruction into which we can only hope some tiny ray of redemptive light will shine. Remarkably and unbelievably, despite a multitude of bad decisions, McDonagh manages to find salvation and reward from the powers that be.
So what about these previously mentioned and potentially exciting individual components? To begin with Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant, which Werner Herzog attempts to franchise into a new and improved version in Port of Call: New Orleans. (Note that Ferrara, apparently enraged by Herzog and Cage’s remake, has been quoted as saying, “As far as remakes go … I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” Whether the new film is deserving of this kind of animosity or not remains to be seen.) Throw in the performances from Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer and several well-played moments where the camera acknowledges the beautiful face of Eva Mendes, and you’re starting to have a recipe worth cooking. Then you shoot the film in New Orleans, beleaguered and yet triumphant in the wake of the Katrina disaster. This very action alone inspires hope that movie producers can actually leverage their budget-savvy tendencies in order to do some good for the American economy in regional locations that don’t always get considered as the backdrops for major motion pictures. But instead, even with all those elements conspiring in the film’s favor, one watches the movie wondering what went wrong (and assuredly most reasonable viewers will). In fact, gentle prediction here – most people will wonder how they came down with such a severe case of whiplash given the film’s speedy passing through the theaters and onto video. And this is all very sad to me.
Somehow, even in the marketing packet that the publicity committee hands out to film reviewers before the screening, Cage manages to come off as an entirely arrogant, out of touch “top-tier” actor capable of huge box-office action-movie successes that tend to go straight to the heads of most actors in Hollywood. They’re hardly to be blamed when they get paid the vast sums of cash that they do for their hand in realizing such profits for the studios. Doesn’t mean they’re great actors – in fact, the action genre itself is hardly the ideal test of an actor’s chops. Nonetheless, Cage and others have allowed the money quotient of box office success to undergo a strange translation in their minds. Maybe through their own personal kind of funny math, they end up thinking of themselves as unparalleled, Oscar-worthy actors, and not just lucky money-making action heroes.
But the truly unfortunate thing about this with someone like Cage is that he is an Oscar-winning actor capable of delivering highly compelling performances that make the audience want to chew down to the marrow of the characters he portrays. This was exactly the case in Leaving Las Vegas. Director Mike Figgis managed to secure a performance from Cage, in which he effectively wrenched up, wrung out and hung his guts on a line to dry right there on-screen for the ninety-plus minutes that eventually earned him an Oscar for best actor in 1996. Cage’s performance in 2002’s Adaptation, a film directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman, was equally troubling and amazing, and similarly earned him a nomination for best actor from the Academy in 2003.
So what was different about those two performances? They’re both character-driven films where Cage is asked to put on display the insides of a man in absolute decline. In his best films, Cage downplays 95% of the lines, mannerisms and behavior, and only during the remaining 5% of the time does he allow his cartoonish tendencies to emerge––and when they did bubble up, those moments offered the audience something crucial: a glimpse at his humanity. His comedic tendency in both of those roles showed us that he was able to somehow laugh at his own misery, which generated a degree of empathy and allowed viewers to swallow the pill of each character’s tragedy, without needing to get up and walk out of the theater.
But this is not the case with Cage’s performance in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Werner Herzog, a personal favorite of mine who has managed to turn out some of the most compelling cinema of the past several decades, seemed on paper to be the perfect director to reign in Cage’s ego as well as his tendency to go too far over the top with the quirky aspects of his characters (such as the unforgivable snippet from the Gone in 60 Seconds trailer where Cage wags his finger-pointed hands in the air silently before muttering, “Ok – Let’s ride.”) After all, it was Herzog who found a way to direct/manage (threaten to kill) the incorrigible Klaus Kinski in 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, a completely blown-out story about an opera-obsessed megalomaniac who embarks on the ridiculous quest to drag a river boat through the Peruvian jungle in order to build an opera house there. And as if that isn’t enough to prove my point, he had done it already a decade earlier for the 1972 classic Aguirre, Wrath of God, also featuring Kinski, an impossible mission, and a jungle.
Here, Herzog doesn’t manage to handle things either forcibly or delicately enough to garner a humble, carefully wrought portrait of Cage’s character, Terence McDonagh. The one standout performance in the film (which comes as too much of a side note), is delivered by actor Brad Dourif (playing the part of bookie Ned Schoenholtz); his sense of urgency and failing patience with McDonagh, as he plays witness to and victim of the Detective’s drug-inspired bad luck, is both believable and solid.
Other problems abound in the film. The promotion of the film and its title lead us to believe that the city itself, this broken down tragedy of a city that is New Orleans, will feature prominently in the story. 12 Rounds, the recently released action film starring WWE wrestler John Cena, manages to make better use of New Orleans than Herzog’s efforts in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. And what a tragic oversight, given an analog so naturally ripe for the plucking: a city in the full-fledged agony of self-destruction, an ideal mirror to reflect back to the audience the internal undoing taking place in the main character, McDonagh. But Herzog shows us very little of the city’s landscape, and certainly very little as metaphor.
Stylistically the film exists in the realm of classic noir, but take a look at some successful noir cinema that highlights location as character – watch Chinatown, for instance – and you’ll see the disparity between what Bad Lieutenant attempts to do and what true cinematic noir accomplishes. In that 1974 masterpiece, director Roman Polanski effectively creates a third main character with his depiction of the location itself. Through mystery and guile indirectly referred to, and the buildup of its personality, Chinatown, the neighborhood, takes on a weight and significance equal to that of either the main character, private detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), or the mystery of money, murder and early Los Angeles land development that each character aids and abets. Instead Herzog attempts to use humor as levity to shield us from what he describes as “the bliss of evil which pervades everything in this film,” and delivers his version of a drug-addled haze of hallucination wherein Detective McDonagh stares at what may or may not be an iguana resting in the middle of a crime scene. In fact, the director’s repeated use of lizards marks the beginning of the film’s undoing from its mid-point onward. Viewers are treated to a point-of-view shot from a crocodile’s perspective of a traffic accident along the side of the highway. It plays almost as ridiculously as it sounds. Compared to a film like Chinatown, Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant falls on its face somewhere between its ambitions and its missed opportunities.
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