The famed German director Werner Herzog has attempted some unusual experiments with the form of cinema. He arranged for the entire cast of Heart of Glass to perform while under hypnosis. He decided to tell the story of Dieter Dengler twice, once as documentary in Little Dieter Needs to Fly and once as fiction in Rescue Dawn. Most famously, while shooting Fitzcarraldo Herzog arranged for a boat to be dragged over the mountains for real, mirroring the weird quest that the movie’s hero embarks upon. Compared to that, the eccentricity of his 2009 film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is nothing; compared to every other film released during the first decade of this century, Herzog made the wildest, most bizarre film imaginable.
Nicholas Cage (your go-to guy for “crazy”) plays a sergeant in the New Orleans police force, who performs a seemingly heroic act in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and gets promoted to lieutenant as a result. But he also hurts his back in the process, and his Vicodin prescription quickly mutates into an addiction to every illicit drug known to man. Soon he’s stealing from the property room, maintaining a shaky relationship with a local prostitute (Eva Mendes), shaking down suspects, and stumbling and slurring his way through every scene. In the meantime he’s trying to solve the execution-style murders of five African immigrants, which may involve a powerful local drug dealer (Alvin Joiner, a.k.a. rapper and Pimp My Ride host Xzibit).
Missing from that plot description is any mention of the title character of the 1992 Abel Ferrera film Bad Lieutenant, and Harvey Keitel (who played the lead in Ferrera’s film) isn’t around either. Cage wallows in many of the same cesspools that Keitel waded through – enough drugs for a pharmacy, gambling his way into an inescapable hole, violent and/or sexual intimidation of suspects and innocents alike – but for entirely different reasons. The Catholic guilt which pervaded every scene of Ferrera’s film is pointedly absent from Herzog’s atheistic worldview.
It’s a bad sign that this film claims to be a sequel (or, in studio-speak, “re-imagining”) of a movie it could not care less about. A lot of famous cinematic train wrecks got their start that way, such as Troll 2 or The Chronicles of Riddick. Having a highly skilled director like Herzog at the helm means Port of Call New Orleans won’t be as incompetent as those films, but it is as weird as those films. Cage’s performance — hunched shoulders to exaggerate his character’s back pain, eyes bugging out to illustrate his desperate drug-addled frenzy — is only part of it. There’s also the weird camera tricks (GatorCam? IguanaCam?), the way that Val Kilmer disappears from the majority of the film only to have a major role in the climax, or the wild conclusion that tries to tie up every hanging plot thread simultaneously while still leaving the audience in an ambiguous place.
Normal films do not do these things. Of course, that’s why cinephiles find major-studio films to be boring: studios always do the normal thing, to the point of tedium. Say this for Port of Call New Orleans, it is not tedious. The lieutenant’s life is in such a state of perpetual chaos that it is impossible to predict where this picture will end: perhaps he will live, perhaps he will die (and if he does die, it could be of drug overdose, murder at the hands of any of a dozen supporting characters, or a savage mauling between the jaws of an alligator), or perhaps he’ll spend the rest of his life in an insane asylum. This film is so wildly out of control that beyond some point it would not even shock if it ended with the death of Nicholas Cage; not his character, but the actor himself.
Consider the case of veteran character actor (and, as director of Mariah Carey’s Glitter, no stranger to crazy films himself) Vondie Curtis-Hall, who plays Cage’s superior officer. At first he seems like a fairly standard police-captain character, just there to represent the hassle of authority on the lieutenant’s no-rules lifestyle. After Cage’s antics reach a certain point, Hall has a surprising line of dialogue where he implies that he’s not so clean himself, and has always tolerated a fair amount of “cowboy shit” from his men. This is all the more interesting because Hall is African-American, and Herzog is well aware that racial minorities tend to suffer the worst side effects of the behavior of bad cops.
But then, at the conclusion of the film, Hall has what may well be the strangest moment in the entire movie. He delivers good news to Cage’s character in a manner so bizarre that it convinced me that the Cage character had already died, and was experiencing a happy-ending-or-maybe-death-hallucination not unlike Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Check out this clip and see what I mean. It seems like the moment should have become an internet meme: a .gif of Hall’s unnaturally cheerful proclamation of “Great news!”, followed by a picture of an adorable cat or of LeBron James dunking or some such, and then another .gif of Hall’s awkward fist-bump with Cage.
Herzog is a master technician, and he’s gotten stellar performances out of actors in the past. Mendes’ work is legitimately great here, upholding a pattern in her career where the smaller the budget of the film, the better she is in it. In fact, it’s not even fair to say that Nicholas Cage is “bad” in this film, as there is a certain go-for-broke quality in his performance that deserves some commendation. However, Cage and all of the actors in the film other than Mendes suffer because Herzog’s chosen tone is so strange. The movie is like a fever dream, or perhaps the last moments of lucid thought before a cocaine overdose causes cardiac arrest. Not only has this version of the bad lieutenant lost all contact with his own morals, but he seems to be losing his mind as well. Going along with him is a terrible, wonderful, sober, drunken two hours that may or may not be enjoyable, but certainly will be tough to forget.
Reviewed by Mark Young