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Non-Review Review: Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call New Orleans

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a mess of a movie. I don’t mean that as praise, nor do I mean it as criticism. It’s just a jumble of ideas and scenes, plot contrivances and random incidents, all tied together through the central performance of Nicolas Cage as Lieutenant Terrence McDonagh. Watching the film, I’m not entirely convinced that it really works, but I do have increased respect for Nicolas Cage, who seems to hold Werner Herzog’s shattered examination together through the sheer force of his performance.

Off the cuff...

Aside from Cage, the real star of Herzog’s film is the city of New Orleans itself. The movie opens in the direct wake of Hurricane Katrina, and Herzog manages to cultivate an impressive sense of place within his movie, without resorting to cheap cliché or stereotype. There’s a sense of the city on the verge of recovery even six months after the natural disaster, with buildings looking like they’re half knocked down, but clearly still inhabited because people have no place else to go. As we’re reminded from the opening shot onwards, all manner of dangerous creatures inhabit the region, with snakes and alligators encroaching on civilisation from the wild surroundings of the city.

In a way, the New Orleans is reflected in Terrence McDonagh, a police officer recovering from injuries sustained during the hurricane. We’re introduced to McDonagh and his partner Stevie as they loot a colleague’s locker during the storm, and we know immediately they aren’t clean cops. In the end, though, it’s an act of decency that wounds McDonagh, as he jumps into the water to try to save a prisoner trapped in the cells, forgotten in the hustle of the incoming storm. It suggests that there is something worthwhile to McDonagh, who spends the rest of the movie in a downward spiral to feed his drug and gambling addictions – it’s just hidden underneath a harsh exterior.

Gunnin' for granny...

The movie itself seems too fractured to really work, occasionally prone to surreal moments (at one point, McDonagh’s internal soundtrack serenades an imaginary iguana) and yet remarkably linear. We know that things are going to get progressively worse for McDonagh, who seems to be nothing more than a rampaging “id” – blackmailing couples into sexual favours outside nightclubs, stealing from the evidence room, smoking dope with suspects. We know the structure of the story, that Internal Affairs will inevitably come knocking on his door, that he’ll cross certain lines and that he’ll try to climb back from it. It’s just that type of story.

So it seems like all Herzog can really do to spice things up is to ensure that everything that unfolds is as extreme as possible, to amplify all the plot points we know the movie must hit. So McDonagh sinks a lot lower than we might expect, and Herzog plays around with our expectations in the final act. The problem with all this is that it seems like the movie is trying to walk the line between a standard corrupt cop movie and something quite a bit surreal. So there’s this strange disconnect between certain sequences, some of which seem fairly straightforward, while the rest are completely absurd.

Copping onto himself...

In fairness, though, the ending is unpredictable. We’ve seen this type of story often enough that we think we know how it must end. And, with credit to Herzog, he rather brilliantly pulls the rug out from under us – the last act is probably nothing like we would have expected. However, despite how clever this is, it still feels contrived and forced, to the point where I spent the final half-hour convinced that it was some sort of drug-induced hallucination. And maybe it was, but the film doesn’t seem to even hint at the possibility, so the end of the film winds up feeling quite strange and disconnected.

However, Cage does his very best to hold all this together with a brave and bold performance. To the extent that the movie works, it works because of Cage. Cage gives McDonagh a strange sort of complexity, where you’re always aware of the character’s inherent wit and the suggestion that there’s a decent man hidden in there somewhere, but also to a point where you aren’t entirely sure what he’s capable of. It’s a genuinely impressive performance, and a reminder that the actor is generally one to watch, even if his choice in work can be… unconventional.

High standards...

McDonagh is a character that it would be easy to play as a collection of character tics. He has a bad back. As his drunk addiction progresses, he slurs his speech. He seems constantly stoned and perpetually on edge. It’s to Cage’s credit that he renders each of these aspects of the character, but also finds something else underneath. Despite the type of conduct that should make him an instant villain, McDonagh seems like a good cop, to the point where we believe his supervisor when he describes him as the best detective in the department.

I’m not entirely sure what I made of the film as a whole. It felt fractured and uneven, veering between strange and conventional with no small amount of uncertainty. However, it also featured a superb central performance – a performance that, to be honest, the film is based around. Indeed, if the film is worth watching, it’s worth watching for Cage. I’m just not sure it’s worth watching.

4 Responses

  1. It’s hard to find the line between McDonagh and Cage here. In a different world he would have received awards recognition for it.

    • I think if the film had been more conventional (and not a remake – because it’s an arthouse remake, strangely enough), he would have been a shoo-in for a nomination or several.

  2. I really enjoyed Herzog’s take on “Bad Lieutenant.” It’s almost as disjointed as it’s title character, McDonagh, and all those strange and lengthy “wildlife” animal tangents seemed somehow prophetic despite their rather haphazard inclusion in the film.

    I’ve been seriously mulling over throwing this one on again. It’s hard to say how a second look will shape my impression. I’m sure I’ll have as much fun as the first go, nevertheless.

    • Yep, it’s crazy – genuinely insane, despite being a structured and linear story, which I think makes it all the more remarkable.

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