November 17, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

DRAMA/THRILLER:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-11-20

Running Length:

2:01

MPAA Classification:

R (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Drugs)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner, Shawn Hatosy, Brad Dourif, Jennifer Coolidge, Fairuza Balk

Director:

Werner Herzog

Screenplay:

William Finkelstein

Cinematography:

Peter Zeitlinger

Music:

Mark Isham

U.S. Distributor:

First Look Pictures

Subtitles:

none


When artistic and marketing impulses collide, you end up with an unwieldy title like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Director Werner Herzog's preferred name, Port of Call New Orleans, was deemed unsuitable by producer Edward R. Pressman, who wanted to incorporate the title of the 1992 Abel Ferrera cult classic, Bad Lieutenant (for which Pressman also filled the "producer" role). The result was a compromise, although Herzog is on record as stating that, beyond the name, Pressman had no role in the movie's development. Although Ferrera and his Bad Lieutenant co-writers are credited for the original screenplay, William Finkelstein's script appears to be wholly original. The only similarity is that the title character (Harvey Keitel in 1992, Nicolas Cage in 2009) is a cop who has been seduced to the dark side and has yielded to drug addiction, gambling, and womanizing. That, however, is hardly new territory for the "bad cop" subgenre. It's important to note that Port of Call New Orleans is not a remake, a re-imagining, or a sequel. It's a stand-alone project that would likely not call to mind Bad Lieutenant had the moniker not been explicit.

When we first meet Sergeant Terence McDonagh (Cage), he's a good cop, risking his life to save a prisoner from rising flood waters and suffering a permanent back injury as a result. When we next encounter him, six months later, he is receiving a commendation and being promoted to lieutenant, but he has secretly become addicted to vicodin and cocaine, the second of which he is stealing from the police store room. As his addiction escalates, his behavior becomes increasingly unstable, with his actions endangering his current case: a multiple homicide committed by local drug kingpin Big Fate (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner). The walls start closing in on Terence, with a client of his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) sending goons to extort money from him, his bookie demanding that he pay his $5000 tab, and Internal Affairs going after his gun and badge. What's cop to do other than join the bad guys?

Aspects of Port of Call New Orleans are compelling. In particular, Herzog and Cage provide an effective and compelling look at how Terence's struggles with his demons lead to the slow disintegration of his moral compass. By the film's midpoint, Terence isn't "evil"; he's amoral. Law and order mean little to him. Now, it's just a matter of making small compromises with corruption on the road to solving his current case. By the end, Terence has transformed into something of a live-action cartoon of the sort Cage can do so well in full scenery chewing mode. It's during those scenes that the actor's interpretation of the Bad Lieutenant most closely resembles Harvey Keitel's frothing-at-the-mouth version. However, it's when the character reaches this state that the movie becomes less interesting. Terrence's descent into darkness is what holds our attention, not what he does once he gets there.

Cage, who has been turning in too many phone-it-in performances in recent years, invests himself in this role. This is especially evident early in the film as he conveys through facial expressions and body language the state of constant pain in which the character exists. One shoulder is higher than the other - a not uncommon occurrence for sufferers of some forms of chronic back pain. One senses that Cage's last act over-the-top work represents a stylistic choice. Eva Mendes has adequate screen time although her character is little more than the clichéd "hooker with a heart of gold." Val Kilmer, despite high billing, is rarely seen - it's a stretch to call his performance "supporting." As villains go, Xzibit is bland and unintimidating, although that's probably more the fault of the writing than the acting.

For me, the ending doesn't work. I understand the message Herzog is conveying and the fact that there's an element of satire in the way he's presenting it but, from a purely narrative point-of-view, it cheapens the story. The apparent cynicism of the denouement is lessened somewhat by the epilogue, where we are provided with some valuable insight "behind the curtain."

Another problem plaguing Port of Call New Orleans is that the main plotline amounts to little more than an uninspired police procedural. I have watched enough NYPD Blue to know just how tired this sort of story is. The focus on Terence enlivens it somewhat, but there's still the sense that too much time is being spent on the nuts-and-bolts of the investigation. We're invested in Terence not in whether he discovers who's behind the killings and puts the responsible parties in jail. Yes, that has to be part of it, but there are too many scenes where it seems to be the point, rather than a means to an end. Herzog includes some trippy sequences featuring imaginary lizards meant to represent Terrence's drug-induced hallucinations, but these don't work as well as the director might have hoped. Some of these moments in concert with Cage's off-the-wall melodramatics made me wonder whether Herzog intended Port of Call New Orleans as a parody rather than a straightforward police thriller/character study. I certainly wouldn't argue with anyone making that claim.

Herzog is without a doubt one of the world's best documentarians, but his history of narrative filmmaking is checkered. He has made some fantastic features and many others that are interesting in some ways but not necessarily successful in the final analysis. Port of Call New Orleans falls into the latter category. It's perhaps 2/3 of a good movie and 1/3 of material that feels out of place or is derivative. Comparisons to the original Bad Lieutenant are unnecessary; Port of Call New Orleans can stand - and fall - on its own merits, inconsistent though they may be.

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