Reviews

Reviews The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Werner Herzog

USA, 2009

Credits

Review by Mike D’Angelo

Posted on 15 September 2009

Source VVS Films 35mm print

Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival

Seventeen years ago, Abel Ferrara gave us Bad Lieutenant, a harrowing portrait of one exceptionally dirty cop’s violent downward spiral. Cinema as primal scream, it’s about as deeply, frighteningly personal as movies get, particularly in its anguished depiction of Catholic guilt and redemption; you can’t imagine it coming from the skull of any other director. So when word broke that a quasi-remake of Bad Lieutenant was being made by Werner Herzog, of all people, jaws dropped en masse. What in God’s name – or in indifferent nature’s name, for that matter – would Herzog’s version of that searing soul cry look like? As it turns out, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans pretty much conforms to any expectations you might have based on the two filmmakers’ respective oeuvres. Catholicism? Gone. Nonstop hypodermic action? Absent. Protagonist stumbling around naked, occasionally heaving a moan of despair? Not so much this time. Iguanacam? Yes, by all means, let’s have an Iguanacam.

Truth be told, Port of Call (as I’ll call it for simplicity’s sake) bears almost no resemblance to Bad Lieutenant, apart from the basic concept of a ludicrously corrupt officer at the end of his rope. For one thing, there’s an honest-to-goodness cops ‘n’ robbers plot here, even if it’s never exactly Herzog’s primary focus. Investigating an execution-style quintuple homicide in the title city, Lt. Terence McDonagh spends a fair amount of time chasing down leads, protecting key witnesses and setting up complicated stings, though he’s always willing to make time for an ugly shakedown or an ill-advised sports bet. By the end of the movie, he’s at least $50,000 in debt, being sought by hired goons, in cahoots with a drug kingpin and under investigation by Internal Affairs. Only a preposterous series of miracles could save him, and so the question he has to ask himself is, does he feel like he’s under the comparatively benevolent wing of a filmmaker philosophically opposed to nihilism? Well, do ya, punk?

On paper, I can’t imagine that Port of Call would have amounted to much more than a multiplex potboiler, hitting its predictable marks with dull efficiency. But McDonagh is played here by Nicolas Cage, and Herzog, to his credit, appears to have given his star license to do pretty much whatever he liked. The result is perhaps Cage’s most hilariously unhinged performance since Vampire’s Kiss—a nonstop welter of weird tics, goofy line readings and impromptu outbursts. It’s the kind of movie in which you laugh the first time because McDonagh is standing hunched behind the door (which has just swung shut to reveal him hidden there), saying something ridiculous, and then you laugh again when you hear the odd buzz and see the strange hand movement and suddenly realize that he’s standing there delivering his monologue while shaving his face with a portable electric razor. Of course.

Herzog, for his part, matches Cage jape for jape, tossing in unexplained reptile hallucinations and contributing such soon-to-be-classic lines as “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” Fans of the Ferrara original may justifiably feel as if it’s been treated with little or no respect, but Port of Call, for all its first-rate buffoonery, is in its own way every bit as sincerely, doggedly demented as its ostensible source. Bad Lieutenant was the ninth circle of hell as conceived by a lapsed moralist; the new movie gives us the same landscape as refracted through the lens of two dead-serious absurdists, and it’s hardly surprising that the result leans decidedly toward scuzzy deadpan comedy. Harvey Keitel’s bad lieutenant can’t believe that a nun could forgive the boys who’d raped her; Cage’s bad lieutenant can’t believe there’s really a drug dealer out there who goes by the street name “G.” You say tomato…

More The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival

We don’t do comments anymore, but you may contact us here or find us on Twitter or Facebook.