*Bad Lieutenant — Port of Call: New Orleans (R)
Kimball's Peak Three
Even if you're a film buff who loathes remakes, the announcement of the filming of Bad Lieutenant — Port of Call: New Orleans had to be easier to take. You only needed to consider the filmmakers involved to be certain that this version would be very different.
Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant, with Harvey Keitel as a corrupt New York cop, was steeped in the guilt and redemption of Catholicism taken to an operatic pitch. But Werner Herzog is a different breed of filmmaker entirely. His approach to obsession and madness, from Fitzcarraldo to Grizzly Man, has always felt more clinical than passionate, observed with a dry fascination.
The wild card in any predictions about Port of Call: New Orleans undoubtedly would be leading man Nicolas Cage, whose wildness has fluctuated on screen nearly as much as his hairline. Here he plays Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop who's injured while rescuing a prisoner from a flooding jail in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Six months later, McDonagh is addicted to painkillers, hassling people for sex and/or drugs, stealing dope from the evidence room, and running up gambling debts. When he's assigned to investigate the murder of an entire family of Senegalese immigrants — connected to drug dealer Big Fate (Xzibit) — it's not even the fifth-most-interesting part of his day.
William Finkelstein's screenplay doesn't provide much context for how bad McDonagh was before his fateful good deed, though he was clearly no Boy Scout. His interactions with his call-girl girlfriend (Eva Mendes) and his bookie (Brad Dourif) are approached simply as givens, along with his willingness to rein in the excesses of his overzealous partner (Val Kilmer). He's bad, but he's kind of an enigma, never making it clear what kind of redemption — if any — may be coming to him.
That doesn't mean Cage's performance isn't terrifically entertaining, in that unhinged way that only a great Nic Cage performance (Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas, Face/Off) can be. Here he fashions an almost Shakespearean-tragic protagonist, limping along with one shoulder hunched, his face contorted into a snarl or a blissful high. It's the kind of over-the-top performance few actors can pull off, one that crackles with intensity even as it avoids anything remotely resembling naturalism.
And Herzog wisely takes his cues from his leading man's gonzo energy. Many of the film's most memorable moments find Herzog linking his camera straight to McDonagh's drug-frazzled brain, including several shots taken from the point of view of nearby reptiles: an alligator, a snake, an iguana. He treats the dumping of a body as almost incidental background business and revels in the freakiness of even peripheral characters. And there's nothing to match the whacked-out hilarity of McDonagh demanding that a dead gangster be shot again because he — and we — can see that his soul is still breakdancing.
There's often a detached quality to Port of Call: New Orleans, as though Herzog is more interested in playing with the genre than crafting something with an emotional punch. Characters have epiphanies, and good deeds are rewarded, but it's not as though the film leaves you with a sense of moral satisfaction. It's more the sense that you've been witness to a weird Frankenstein experiment in grafting a director to incongruous material, with Nicolas Cage serving as the jolt of electricity. It's not often you can say it of a remake, but you've probably never seen anything quite like this.