Culture & Conversation

Absurd Hybrid Cop Mania

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a very strange title for a very strange film. Director Werner Herzog wields a sword of absurdity to construct a movie that is part crime drama, part comedy, and part documentary on New Orleans’ natural wildlife. There’s really nothing quite like it.

Nick Cage plays Terrence McDonagh, a police officer whose problems are many. To name a few: (1) After rescuing a drowning convict during the Katrina floods, he suffers a spinal injury and becomes addicted to painkillers; (2) the addiction progresses to harder drugs such as coke and heroine (he resorts to stealing confiscated narcotics from the department); (3) his investigation surrounding the murder of a family of African immigrants is leading nowhere; (4) his escort girlfriend (Eva Mendes) is smacked around by one of her Johns, forcing McDonagh into a serious confrontation with the mob; (5) he has to take care of his alcoholic father’s dog. The list goes on …

I would like to say that Cage’s performance is a return to form for the actor, but in all reality, he’s consistently manic in most of his work. The fact of the matter is that Cage is as good as the film he’s in, and here, he’s exceptional. Herzog gives him free range to what he does so bloody well, which in this case consists of pointing guns in old ladies’ faces and inexplicably developing a strange accent around halfway through. And it works, all of it. You’re never left pondering the method to Cage’s madness, you just accept it for what it is: pure, unadulterated insanity.

The rest of the cast fares quite well: Eva Mendes and rapper-come-actor Xzibit (who plays Big Fate, the crime lord behind the murders) are both particularly likable. Brad Dourif plays McDonagh’s bookie, and in my humble opinion, you can never get enough of Brad Dourif.

Then there’s the maestro of mayhem himself: Mr. Herzog. Herzog’s insanity certainly matches Cage’s. If you can, avoid watching the trailer or reading many reviews on the film, as I feel that there are particular moments that have unfortunately been given away. These moments often consist of Herzog suddenly switching the point of view, mid scene, to something completely unexpected. Much like Cage’s strange accent, they come right out of left field.

Yet as odd as these moments are, they do fit into the film’s unique train of logic. For instance, during a traditional funeral for the murdered family, a shaman takes several swigs of what appears to be rum and spits it onto the graves of the deceased between prayers. As bizarre as this image is to me as a Western viewer, I accepted that it’s simply something that happens; it is what it is. And there’s a strange beauty to it all, much like there is to the rest of the film. Herzog’s documentary roots are certainly on display throughout.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the film is the fact that McDonagh isn’t a “bad lieutenant” at all; rather, he’s a good lieutenant with horrible indulgences. Neither Herzog nor Cage appears very interested in having the character drop to his knees and beg for salvation (see Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film that inspired this one). The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans empathizes with McDonagh’s suffering; it has a deep love and respect for the character. And it’s this love and respect that carries the film through all of its darkly bizarre moments, and has it resonate with an honest affection for humanity. A genuine celebration of the unfamiliar if ever there was one.

The Bad Lieutenant zipped in and out of Montreal movie theatres. Look for it on DVD. Or Pay For View. Catch the trailer on YouTube

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