Even ten years on, it’s strange to contemplate just how weird a project 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was.
The film shares a title and a bare-bones plot similarity with Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrera’s acclaimed 1992 drama about a troubled, drug-addled New York City cop. But it’s not a sequel, nor really a remake, nor was it authorized by the Ferrara who, somewhat understandably, trashed the idea in multiple interviews. The director of the 2009 film, the German master Werner Herzog, even claimed to have not seen the Ferrara version.
While Herzog’s film bared a superficial similarity to Ferrara’s, there are several key differences (the films share a producer, Ed Pressman, who presumably owned the rights.) It moves the action from New York to post-Katrina New Orleans. Rather than cocaine and gambling – though he indulges in both – its main character’s primary vice of choice is prescription painkillers. It excises most of the first film’s explicit references to Catholicism, as the first film’s inciting incident was the rape of a nun. Also, the ending is much happier, with everything, somewhat comically, working out in spite of it all.
And most notably, Port of Call New Orleans replaced Harvey Keitel’s more naturalistic acting with that of Nicolas Cage, giving one of the greatest of his explosive, bug-eyed performances. Yes, this movie is exceptionally dark and perverse, but when I watched it back in 2009, thanks to Cage’s performance, I couldn’t get the smile off my face. Watching it again recently, I felt the same way.
While the Keitel character was unnamed, Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a decorated New Orleans police detective who, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, saved a man’s life, but in the process suffered a serious back injury that left him with a massive addiction to painkillers, as well as other drugs.
Six months after the storm, McDonagh is juggling his time between investigating the murder of five Senegalese immigrants, dealing with various parties to whom he owes money, and taking frequent extreme and illegal measures to score drugs. Yet despite all the corruption and distraction, McDonagh shows that he’s still pretty well-functioning when it comes to being a detective.
The plot also avails itself of a plot arc from a year earlier on the influential cop show The Shield: A corrupt cop has two different groups of criminals who want to kill him, and the cop ultimately solves the problem by pitting the criminals against each other instead.
It all plays out in this scene, which is the best use of yodeling-and-harmonica music in a Cage film other than Raising Arizona:
Throughout Cage, wearing a bewildered expression, bad haircut, an ill-fitting suit, gives one of his more enjoyable performances. He refers to crack cocaine as “the kibble” and later speaks of his “lucky crack pipe.” In the film’s most famous scene, he sees iguanas at a crime scene, in a drug-fueled hallucination. It’s two hours of Cage absolutely going for broke, in a way only he can:
Shot on location, it’s very much a New Orleans film, one that captures that city post-Katrina much the way Spike Lee’s 25th Hour portrayed New York immediately in the aftermath of 9/11. But it makes no effort to make its city look glamorous amid the desolation, the way David Simon’s Treme would a few years later. There’s very little jazz music, no traditional New Orleans food, and I don’t think the French Quarter is even glimpsed.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans came out during a time when Herzog was making a lot of feature films, as opposed to documentaries. It arrived three years after Rescue Dawn and was released the same year as My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, and it showed Herzog is the perfect director for this sort of over-the-top material. The only drawback was that the director didn’t deign to appear in the film as an actor. That, and he and Cage never worked together again.
While Cage’s performance, predictably, takes up a lot of the oxygen, the supporting cast is strong too. An uncharacteristically understated Val Kilmer is Cage’s partner and sidekick, Eva Mendes plays his sex worker girlfriend and showing up in smaller roles are Xhibit, Denzel Whitaker, Michael Shannon, Shea Wigham, and Jennifer Coolidge.
Bad Lieutenant isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a durable franchise, yet somehow the concept has been made into two wildly different movies from two very different filmmakers, 17 years apart. And while Ferrera’s version, great as it is, isn’t the sort of thing I’ve ever felt the need to rewatch, Herzog and Cage’s is endlessly rewatchable.