There are reasons why Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans shouldn’t work. Chief among these is that the story is completely played out. Corrupt cop, running amok, playing by his own flawed rules as his life unravels around him. You’ve heard it all before, and in less capable hands, this would be a completely forgettable movie. Lucky for everyone that Werner Herzog doesn’t like to make forgettable movies.
Nicholas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, the titular Lieutenant. While rescuing a prisoner about to drown in his cell during Hurricane Katrina, McDonagh injures his back, an injury that the doctor tells him will likely plague him and cause him pain for the rest of his life. Bummer, but apparently the doctor’s solution is to give him an eternal prescription for Vicodin. This propels McDonagh down a dark path of drugs and debauchery. Before you know it, he’s shaking down johns of his hooker girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), smoking crack and banging club girls in parking lots, and racking up huge gambling debts with his bookey, Ned (Brad Dourif). It is a slippery slope indeed. But McDonagh, unlike many of his cinematic counterparts, doesn’t try to scrabble his way out of the hole and fail, he gleefully digs himself deeper and deeper into the chaos and madness of underground New Orleans.
In the midst of his freefall, McDonagh still manages to be a devoted cop, coping with the post-apocalyptic mayhem that immediately followed Katrina. A Senegalese drug dealer and his family are murdered execution style, and he is in charge of the investigation.
Left alone, the story wouldn’t do much. But screenwriter William Finkelstein (Cop Rock, yes, I said motherfucking Cop Rock!!!) populates his script with quirky background characters, roles that Herzog fills, in his usual style, with an assortment of twitchy misfits. Xzibit plays drug dealer with dreams of expanding into real estate. Fairuza Balk does a turn as a slutty traffic cop that McDonagh tries to enlist in his unending quest for pharmecuticals. Tom Bower and Jennifer Coolidge play his almost adorably alcoholic father and stepmother, who on a different level and with different substances, struggle with the same demons as McDonagh. Val Kilmer is his equally, though differently, corrupt partner, and does so with an accent that seems so removed from his person that I was almost convinced someone else was doing the voice. This idiosyncratic collection of individuals adds a much needed texture to the movie.
Above all of these characters, Cage stands out. This is a difficult sentence for me to type since I generally hate pretty much everything he’s done for the last 15 years except Con Air. But he plays McDonagh like a delirious, manic, cracked out Jimmy Stewart with a revolver stuffed down the front of his pants. His performance harkens back to some of his earlier, riskier, roles. He’s emaciated and pasty, sweating like he has a severe case of Dengue fever, with a bad haircut. His performance toes the line of being too much, and he risks boiling over into caricature, but he reins it in before it goes too far. Herzog gives Cage ample room to play with in the confines of drug induced bedlam of McDonagh’s mind, my favorite being a paranoid stare down with a pair of iguanas that Val Kilmer insists are not iguanas, and may not be there at all.
When I first saw a trailer about this movie, I dismissed it completely. I assumed that it was going to be some pedestrian film about a corrupt cop that only wanted to capitalize on the success of something that came before. Apparently Herzog lobbied for a name change, and there is no connection to the 1992 Harvey Keitel Bad Lieutenant. Regardless of the title, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans twists and tweaks the formula and characters just enough to a make a move that is interesting and worth watching.