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Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans

Posted: November 1st, 2009, by Alex McChesney

Much as I enjoy his movies, I suspect that Werner Herzog and I have very little in common. I’m not German, have never had a mustache, and am not an acclaimed director. In fact, I suspect that our lives probably only intersect on one tiny point. Neither of us have seen Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Not that it really matters. Port of Call… was never intended to have any connection with that film, and it’s title seems to have been dictated by a marketing suit who happened to notice that both films involve… well… you know. It’s an unfortunate decision that gives this film the air of a dashed-off sequel when it very much deserves to be judged on its own merits.

Nicolas Cage plays the titular copper, who starts the film as a reasonably good lieutenant – at least as good as anyone in the film gets – who injures his back in the line of duty and quickly becomes hooked on prescription painkillers, so beginning a downward spiral of addiction that takes in everything from gambling to heroin. On the journey to rock bottom he struggles to keep himself together long enough to solve the gangland killing of a family of illegal immigrants, maintain some kind of relationship with his equally damaged prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), and not get killed by one of the many, many people he pisses off on the way.

It sounds grim, but it’s played as a comedy, albeit a pitch-black one. Cage has never been the man to go to for a subtle, nuanced performance. He can, however, be immensely entertaining when let off the leash and allowed to gnaw on the scenery, and Herzog knows this, having clearly seasoned every last prop and encouraged him to indulge his vices in tandem with his character, albeit vices of performance rather than chemical consumption. The film never tips into pantomime however, not least because of Herzog’s traditionally documentarian style, which deliberately limits the use of multiple camera angles to lend a odd veneer of realism to scenes of bug-eyed crack-addled insanity, while some delightfully off-kilter inserts shot on video keep the audience unbalanced.

Screenwriter William M. Finkelstein is a veteran of TV police procedurals, having spent the majority of his career writing for the likes of L.A. Law and Law & Order, but anyone coming to Bad Lieutenant for a cop movie is likely to be disappointed. In a sense it has a lot in common with Herzog’s 1977 movie Stroszek, replacing that film’s doomed immigrant protagonist with one born and raised in the USA. Indeed, Bad Lieutenant explicitly references Stroszek on at least one occasion, suggesting that the similarity is not accidental. Herzog, who now lives in Los Angeles, was allegedly displeased with the way his earlier film was seen purely as an indictment of America, and perhaps this film can be seen as an attempt to soften that interpretation by placing greater responsibility for his downfall in the main character’s hands, though facilitated by modern society.

In any case, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans should be relished for the bleak insanity of the Lieutenant’s rollercoaster ride of self-destruction, though it’s a ride likely to turn your stomach by the end.

Alex McChesney

Alex was brought up by a family of stupid looking monkeys after being lost in the deep jungles of Paisley. Teaching him all their secret conga skills (as well as how to throw barrels at plumbers), Alex was able to leave for the bright lights of Glasgow where adventure struck him and he needed all his conga skills to save the world and earn the hand of a lovely Texan princess. He now keeps a low profile alphabeticising his record collection and making sock monkeys in the likenesses of his long lost family.


1 Response to Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans

  1. jgram

    Abel Ferrara’s original is pretty much the perfect movie and Herzog’s version, without going anywhere near it, is Blue Brothers 2000