, 122 min, 2009
Nicolas Cage (Terence McDonagh), Eva Mendes (Frankie Donnenfield), Val Kilmer (Stevie Pruit), Xzibit (Big Fate (as Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner)), Fairuza Balk (Heidi), Shawn Hatosy (Armand Benoit), Jennifer Coolidge (Genevieve), Tom Bower (Pat McDonagh), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Captain James Brasser (as Vondie Curtis Hall)), Brad Dourif (Ned Schoenholtz), Denzel Whitaker (Daryl), Irma P. Hall (Binnie Rogers), Shea Whigham (Justin), Michael Shannon (Mundt), Joe Nemmers (Larry Moy). Directed by Werner Herzog and produced by Stephen Belafonte, Randall Emmett, Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky, Edward R. Pressman, John Thompson. Screenplay by William M. Finkelstein (as William Finkelstein), based on the earlier film Bad Lieutenant by Victor Argo & Paul Calderon & Abel Ferrara & Zoë Lund.
Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans is some sort of wonderfully bizarre, ass-backward insane masterpiece. Here is a film that gradually and, if possible, subtly works its way over the top, only to double back and go over the top again. It is a madcap dive off the deep end, a spit in the eye to general narrative convention, formulaic cop dramas, basic common sense and any scintilla of good taste. You don’t like it? Fuck it! It hates you!
Nicolas Cage gives what can only be described as the kind of fearlessly scenery-spewing performance that is right in his wheelhouse as Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, a once-decorated and mildly, shall we say, corruptible (given where he ends up) detective on the New Orleans Police Force. The film opens with Terence and his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer, appearing positively sedated by comparison – until the end) in the midst of Hurricane Katrina, heading down to a flooded prison to clear out a locker as a favor to a friend. In the middle of snake-infested, filthy hurricane-ravaged water, Terence finds a lowly prisoner (literally) drowning behind bars. After a very funny negotiation involving Terence’s “$55 Swiss cotton underpants” and his desire to avoid soiling them, he dives in and saves the poor, wretched soul.
Cut to six months later and Terence, reduced to a hunchback shadow of his former self and squawking in an unidentifiable dialect that vaguely recalls the voices from gangster films of the 1930s, is being prescribed Vicadin forchronic back pain incurred in his sudden moment of heroism (I wonder if he’d have been given a medal of honorhad his superiors heard the conversation between him and his beneficiary). He returns to active duty under the full effects of drug addiction, fast & furiously snorting cocaine off his fist (which before long, accidentally, gets joined by its unhappy cousin heroin) and sharing in his substance-abusing haze with a less-than-gold-hearted hooker (make that high-priced call girl) named Frankie (Eva Mendes). He scours the Katrina-ravaged streets looking to shake down club-hoppers for drugs and, if possible, sex (to call it rape isn’t precisely fair since the one person we see him do this to seems more or less into it at the time).
Terence’s family is no picnic either. His father (Tom Bower) is an alcoholic about to go into AA and his stepmother (Jennifer Coolidge, of American Pie fame, near unrecognizable here) is a white trash beer-guzzler who can’t handle being the least sober one in the house. A ways into the running time, she and Frankie have a near-cat fight that is borderline hilarious.
Meanwhile (this whole film takes place meanwhile), back on the beat, it’s not long before Terence and company are investigating the execution of five Nigerian drug dealers. There’s some business about a material witness (Denzel Whitaker from The Great Debaters) and I won’t even hint where that goes except to say that it leads to a startling, tasteless and reckless gesture of a scene in an assisted living home – the kind of scene that almost makes you want to applaud. Perhaps that says less about the film than it does about me as a person.
All this murder stuff almost inevitably leads to a kingpin named Big Fate (rapper Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner continuing his acting in the wake of 2008’s The X Files: I Want to Believe). Late in the film, a deal is made. And that is quite enough of the relatively meaningless plot. To reveal much more would be cheating at Scrabble.
At the end of the day, the film, like its anti-hero, does somehow manage to overcome the odds and walk ass-backwards into an ending that makes a kind of perfect, kind of hilarious sense. Indeed, we find ourselves positively gobsmacked that, gee, there was a plot coiling away just beneath the surface. Perhaps that crackpipe was lucky after all. Maybe that’s the point. That Terence, like the film as a whole, manages to wallow in his own faults and, in fact, celebrate them and still be effective – despite himself.
The film was directed by Werner Herzog (yes, the Werner Herzog!) and is somehow unlike anything he’s done before, and yet peculiarly Herzogian. Talk about an auteur putting their definitive directorial stamp on a film! Here is a film that balances precariously between the plot-driven and the meandering, between the deathly serious and darkly funny, between the powerfully dramatic and the patently absurd. It shouldn’t work, but so help me it does.
Suffice to say, Herzog finds plenty to distract himself (and the audience) with. From Cage’s explosive portrait of law & order giving away to soul-rotting evil, to the literal tons of character acting moments – from Fairuza Balk as a sexy, nasty little highway patrol officer to Brad Dourif as Terence’s remarkably patient and understanding bookie, from Michael Shannon as a shifty evidence room stooge to Shea Whigham as one of Frankie’s abusive johns.
The style of the film does seem utterly, if improbably, Herzogian, from the hallucinogenic iguanas on the coffee table to the trippy fish-eye lenses used to capture them in Terence’s state of mind. And hey, it’s not every corrupt cop movie that ends a shootout by reminding the audience of the dancing chicken at the end of Stroszek (1977)!
The screenplay comes from TV writer William Finkelstein (NYPD Blue and Law & Order) and, it’s worth noting, is reputedly “based on” (or, more accurately, inspired by?) Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) with its powerful, comparably restrained title performance by Harvey Keitel.
For those who have heard about this film and fear that first seeing Ferrara’s work is necessary to understand or enjoy Herzog’s, it won’t help – at least with regards to this new film. All it seems to add is a steaming Southern-fried mentality, a definite article at the title’s beginning and a weird subtitle. And as for the ungainly title of Herzog’s film, it seems to come – with no thanks – from the original film’s producer Edward R. Pressman and his desire to start a Bad Lieutenant franchise. I don’t know about that.
What I do know is that if anyone had told me a few years (or even months) ago that Herzog would be directing an American corrupt cop movie starring Nicolas Cage, I’d have said they’re crazy. If anyone had told me that a comedy could be made about a sadistic, drug-fueled police detective, I possibly would’ve thought better of it. If anyone had told me…