Hidden Gems - Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
By Kyle Lee
December 7, 2018
Werner Herzog is one of the great filmmakers we’ve ever been gifted by the filmmaking gods. François Truffaut once called him "the most important film director alive." He makes amazing documentaries like Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, but he’s perhaps most famous for his portraits of madness in movies like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Sometimes he even mixes the two styles together, in a movie like Lessons of Darkness, which was shot as a documentary of the burning oil fields in Kuwait during the first Gulf War, but Herzog narrated it as though he was observing an alien planet obsessed with fire. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog’s best movie) concerns the story of a group trying to find the mythical lost golden city of El Dorado, and the murderous descent that happens along the way. Fitzcarraldo concerns a man who wants to pull a 320-ton steam engine over a mountain to get to the river on the other side.
Both of those movies starred the volatile Klaus Kinski (father of Natasha), and are the stuff of legend. Kinski alienated the whole Aguirre crew and when he threatened to quit the production, while in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, Herzog informed him he had a rifle and he wasn’t letting Kinski go anywhere. Kinski finished the film. A decade later, in Fitzcarraldo, Kinski again alienated the crew working in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, and a native offered to kill Kinski if Herzog wanted him to. Herzog declined on the grounds that he hadn't finished filming and didn't want to re-shoot the movie (which he’d already had to do with original star Jason Robards catching disease and co-star Mick Jagger unable to come back for re-shoots due to a Rolling Stones tour). Herzog would later chronicle his 5 movie relationship with Kinski in his 1999 documentary My Best Fiend.
With those kinds of things in his past, it's no surprise when in 2009 Herzog decided to "remake" 1992's Harvey Kietel showcase Bad Lieutenant despite having never seen it. He moved the action away from New York City, a place integral to the original movie. Herzog changed the plot completely, and has said that he doesn’t even really consider it a remake at all, that only the producers of the movie did. So that's how we got the terrific, but ridiculously titled, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Nicolas Cage has called himself “the American Klaus Kinski”, and is able to give off the same unhinged qualities that Kinski could. The difference is that Cage seems to be acting instead of being an actual crazy person. I suppose it was inevitable that Cage and Herzog would make a movie together. Cage plays the titular Lieutenant, Terence McDonagh. In the opening scenes, Terence injures his back saving a jail inmate from the rising water rushing in during Hurricane Katrina. That may sound like a noble way to get injured in the line of duty, but just minutes previously Terence had been making bets with his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) about when the guy would drown in his cell from the quickly rising water. Months after the injury and Terence is addicted to the Vicodin he was prescribed for his back pain, and has graduated his addictions to include cocaine, heroin, crack, gambling, and trading sexual favors for letting a woman out of a ticket (while making her boyfriend watch, at gunpoint). McDonagh also spends time with his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), his bookie Ned (Brad Dourif, for once not the craziest actor in his cast), and occasionally goes to visit his dad, who is successfully trying to beat his alcoholism with AA meetings.
What Herzog concerns himself with plot-wise isn't really significant; it’s an episodic journey with an unhinged lunatic. This is another of Herzog many looks at a man nearing on madness. Usually his heroes descend further into madness than they were in the beginning of the movie, and Terence looks to be on the same arc, but maybe things turn out differently for him. I think Herzog might even be giving us his version of a happy ending, who knows.
One thing that is for certain though, is that Cage and Herzog were born to work together. Even I sometimes forget just how brilliant Cage can be when he works with the right people and material. He, for sure, has done more than his fair share of crap over the years, but he can also be one of our finest actors when put in the correct circumstances. Just take a look at movies like Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas, Moonstruck, Adaptation, or Bringing Out the Dead and you can see how brilliant he can be. Working with Herzog allowed Cage to be as unhinged as he's ever been. He can somehow deliver a (now classic) line like "Shoot him again, his soul is still dancing" and make it sound not like a crazy line, but like a line delivered by a crazy man. And fellow crazy man that he is, Herzog actually shows us the soul that Terence still sees dancing, which makes me laugh just thinking about it. He also gives us extended shots into the eyes of an alligator and multiple looks into the cold staring eyes of a pair of iguanas that Terence continues to hallucinate. They're odd, strangely poetic, and completely fitting in a way that can only be described as Herzog-ian.
There's a performance in the movie even more surprising than Cage's and that's the one of Terence's step-mother Genevieve, played by Jennifer Coolidge, a.k.a. Stifler's Mom. She's constantly drunk on beer, but objects when she finds cocaine in Frankie's purse, yet doesn't object when she catches Terence snorting in the house, saying that they both just have their vices. It's a tremendously real performance next to Cage's wild man performance. There's also rapper Xzibit playing a drug kingpin and holding his own against some serious acting talent. And there are nice little cameos by Fairuza Balk and Michael Shannon. Shannon agreed to do the movie, despite appearing in only two scenes, just for the chance to work with Herzog.
So Herzog created his latest great movie, one containing one of the best performances by Nicolas Cage at his most unrestrained and brilliant in years. Herzog is a filmmaker that always intrigues me, always coming up with something interesting, keeping him on a different level than many of his peers. Roger Ebert once said that Herzog "has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons, or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular." and I agree completely. Bad Lieutenant is one of his best and most underseen Hidden Gems.