Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans is like some kind of dream. Maybe even a nightmare, but if so, it’s a nightmare not without a certain poetic sensibility. The disturbed poet responsible is Werner Herzog, capable of both masterful documentaries and narratives, and obsessed with staring in the face of madness and exploring the limits of the human soul. After plumbing the depths of the Arctic and all of its crazy dreamers and philosophers with Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog now turns to Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, for whom life in the Big Easy is anything but. And yes, he’s a very, very bad lieutenant.
In the film’s opening scene, which crackles and pops with wild-eyed energy, McDonagh encounters a prisoner in the aftermath of Katrina. The man’s cell is half-submerged, and he’s trapped. The man pleads with McDonagh, who taunts, “You think I wanna get my pants dirty for you?” But after he’s done playing games, he dives in anyway, and resurfaces with back problems. To take the edge off, he starts doing cocaine. Because as we all know, when you want to take the edge off something, you pick up your lucky crack pipe.
McDonagh’s girlfriend is a prostitute (Eva Mendes). They get drugs for each other. McDonagh is so desperate for a fix that when he’s running low, he’ll pull over couples and tell them they fit the descriptions of two junkies seen passing blow around in a club. He’ll back them into a corner so that the only recourse is for the girl to have sex with him and let him smoke their crack. He gets off on the boyfriend watching. To Terence McDonagh, power is a muscle to be flexed, a force to be exerted in the effort to get exactly what he wants, when he wants it. Justice is at best irrelevant, at worst non-existent.
Nicolas Cage plays McDonagh like a mad dog finally unleashed after years of playing treasure hunters, superheroes, and crazy scientists in increasingly ridiculous action movies. In his eyes you can see the same intensity, the same sense that what you’re watching is someone truly losing his sanity, that Klaus Kinski possessed in Herzog’s classic Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Cage is teetering on the brink here, and if you hadn’t already guessed that McDonagh has no boundaries, just wait’ll you see him wring information from an old lady by yanking off her oxygen mask and putting a gun to her head.
If the movie was nothing but two hours of Cage growing progressively more and more delirious, it would be one of the most exhilarating movies of the year, possibly of the decade. But there’s more to it, and unfortunately, that more isn’t exactly awesome. This is literally a movie where the lead performance is so strong and so central to its success that a real plot isn’t necessary. Instead it just slows things down, and worse, feels incredibly ordinary. The plot of Port of Call – New Orleans hasn’t exactly stuck with me, but I do know that when he isn’t doing batshit crazy things just to be batshit crazy, McDonagh is trying to find who slaughtered a family of Senegalese immigrants, which leads him to drug dealer Big Fate (rapper Xzibit). A friend of mine astutely observed that most of these bits feel like they were lifted from a direct-to-DVD gangster movie.
One thing I do know, however, is that this Bad Lieutenant has absolutely nothing to do with Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant, except for the fact that both of them are about corrupt cops (Harvey Keitel in the earlier film). Herzog has been quick to point out that he fought against the title and has never seen Ferrara’s film. Which, of course, did not stop Ferrara from declaring, “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they're all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” I’m no fan of Ferrera’s version, but you’ve got to give the man credit for having the balls to publicly wish death upon Werner Herzog. Herzog’s film is, to me, unquestionably better, but Ferrara’s at least committed itself to raw depravity without any of the bizarre, left-field interludes that disrupt this one.
Because, let’s face it, Herzog is all over the place. He’ll have Cage going bonkers one minute, then he’ll lamely try to tie everything together with some semblance of a story, then he’ll bust out some oddball artistic flourish like sustained psychedelic shots from the point of view of an hallucinatory iguana. And I don’t even know what the hell happened at the end, except that it makes one consider the entire thing might just have been McDonagh’s crazed fever dream. But even if it’s inconsistent, it’s a truly one-of-a-kind experience, one that has to be seen even despite its faults. If nothing else, you have to see the scene where Cage shoots at a dead man’s breakdancing soul, barking the immortal line: “Shoot him, his soul’s still dancing!”