365 Days, 100 Films #90 – The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009)

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, 2009.

Directed by Werner Herzog.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Jennifer Coolidge, Michael Shannon and Xzibit.


A detective in New Orleans find his life unravelling due to a fierce drug addition.

There’s a story about Nicolas Cage from when he was filming Kick-Ass. He played Damon MacReady, an ex-cop, normally enough, but whenever he donned the superhero suit of Big Daddy, Cage would break up his speech and sound overly husky. When he first did this on set, everyone was a little too confused and respectful to point his ridiculous voice out.

So Cage walks off set between takes to get a drink from his trailer. Matthew Vaughn, the director, understandably concerned, absorbing the puzzled stares of his perplexed cast and crew, went off after him. Cage is already in his trailer by the time Vaughn catches up, so he lets himself in. The small front room is littered with videos of the 60s Batman television series. It quickly dawns upon Vaughn that he’s being Adam West.

Conclusion: Nicolas Cage is insane.

Yet, gloriously so. There’s a bizarre logic to his eccentricity, and an admirable boldness in the way he doesn’t feel the need to explain his actions – all traits that aid his characterisation immeasurably in Werner Herzog’s equally outlandish The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans. It’s a remake of sorts of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant, which had Harvey Keitel in the lead. I wouldn’t really know, though. I haven’t seen that one. Maybe next year.

Herzog and Cage appear to be kindred spirits, much like how the former and Klaus Kinski once were. “Why are there two fucking iguanas on the coffee table?” Cage asks during a stakeout scene, as the reptile begins to serenade him with Release Me by Engelbert Humperdinck.

None of the others in the room can see the signing iguana. Herzog takes this as an opportunity to switch cameras from a professional digital one to a low-grade consumer camcorder. You can tell by the amateurish light typical of homemade movies, and the handheld way in which the camera moves. You get the sense that the rest of the cast and crew have departed, leaving only Cage, Herzog and two iguanas on set, all singing Release Me in a drug induced haze.

Yet how does this fit into the film’s grander narrative scheme? Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a cop in post-Katrina New Orleans. He was dirty before the hurricane, but a back injury he sustained whilst rescuing a prisoner during it has made him significantly more so. McDonagh walks with a permanent limp and a half-hunch, and runs off a consistent intake of confiscated narcotics lifted from the evidence room to dull his injury’s pain. A gun always protrudes worryingly from his waistband like an erection. You need real balls to wear a gun pointing that way.

McDonagh is tasked with investigating the brutal murder of a Senegalese family. He means well, showing a genuine passion for capturing the killers, but his methods are perverse and he often strays into lengthy periods of drug taking. Sometimes it helps. When he pulls out a crack pipe during some one-on-one interrogation time, his suspect becomes so disquieted that he gives up some very helpful pieces of information.

McDonagh’s increasingly outlandish techniques get him taken off the case. Additionally, he has another addiction – gambling. He’s in severe debt and has gangsters on his back about it. McDonagh becomes a man trapped in a corner. And you know what they say about wild animals stuck in corners…

He runs around town picking up drugs like they’re health packages in a video game. He pulls over one guy and gal who’ve just exited a nightclub. Flashing his badge, he confiscates all their drugs and smokes them on the spot. This turns the gal on, so they have sex over McDonagh’s car bonnet. Her boyfriend flounders helplessly in the background as McDonagh pulls the gal’s hair back and sinisterly whispers into her ear “did your parents molest you?”

The film continues to outperform itself on acceptable levels of decency. McDonagh later breaks into an old people’s hope and traps two elderly women. “I’m working on 1 ½ hours sleep over the past three days and I’m struggling to remain courteous,” McDonagh announces as he suddenly appears from behind a door, trimming his emerging stubble with an unexplained electric shaver.

Yet amongst all this chaos, there is a strange, overactive heart to the film. McDonagh and Frankie Donnenfeld, his lover and a prostitute, appear to be sincerely in love. McDonagh’s father, Pat (Tom Bower), battles obsessively with his alcoholism to the neglect of his family’s issues.

During the film’s most subdued scene, which is still a notch or two on the crazy belt above most others, McDonagh takes Frankie to the shed at his family home. He remembers how when he was young, his mother would tell tales of pirates sailing up the Mississippi. Before she died, his mother had bought him a metal detector to look for any spoils that might have fallen from their ships. One day it started to beep, so he began digging and digging and digging, and he found a silver spoon. “And I went, ‘Hey man…this is treasure. This is Pirate’s treasure!’ And I hid it somewhere…I still can’t find it.” The scene ends tenderly, with the crazy man and the whore tentatively searching for an ancient silver spoon in the old family shed.

These oddballs genuinely feel for each other. It makes their actions almost entirely contradictory to their relationships, and a complexity this great within a film so seemingly unconcerned with complexity should be applauded. You’re unlikely to see much else like it.


Oli Davis

365 Days, 100 Films

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