Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. This odd rumor of a film turned barely released reality finally ambles onto a local screen this week. And if you're familiar with the three forces colliding here — Nicolas Cage, Werner Herzog, Bad Lieutenant — then that's all you need to know. Because Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is pretty much exactly what you're expecting: two hours of abject craziness from which you can't look away.
But if that formula isn't meaningful to you, then I guess some explanation is in order. The original Bad Lieutenant is a 1992 film directed by outré indie auteur Abel Ferrara that stars Method madman Harvey Keitel as a corrupt, lapsed-Catholic New York cop who goes on one hellacious bender while investigating the rape of a nun.
BL: Port of Call New Orleans isn't a sequel so much as a redeployment of the concept, this time with a similarly sui generis director — German filmmaker Herzog, known for celebrating insanity in both fiction (Aguirre: Wrath of God) and doc form (Grizzly Man) — and scenery-chewing lead. Added to the mix is a location that provides more stray color, Herzog depicting a fragile New Orleans with nature intruding all around — water moccasins skimming across flood waters, roadkill alligators bearing witness.
The Ferrara/Keitel original was more tightly constructed — the baseball playoff series Keitel's character was betting on providing a background time frame and structure — and had a tougher emotional core. It was an anguished film. Cage's post-Katrina New Orleans cop, Terence McDonagh, is investigating a similarly heinous crime — the drug-related execution of a family of Senegalese immigrants, including two young children — but isn't quite as affected by it.
Instead, this Bad Lieutenant is more of a shaggy-dog detective story, with an intentional comic edge made sharper for how it roots McDonagh's increasingly outlandish behavior in a degree of internal logic.
When we first meet McDonagh — contemplating whether to free a left-behind prisoner as Katrina waters rise — we already know he's a sketchy character. But six months later, with a back injury and a Vicodin prescription that makes him hunched-over and jittery, he's on a more severe path. Within the first 20 minutes, we see McDonagh accost a drug-store clerk, steal from the police property room, and snort cocaine with his prostitute girlfriend (a dazzlingly game Eva Mendes). And he's just getting started. By the time McDonagh is threatening and berating old ladies, smoking crack with gangsters, and shaking down football stars, Herzog and an increasingly unhinged Cage have pushed their film past such petty distinctions as "good" or "bad."
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (why the "Port of Call" part? Who knows! Who cares!) is a conventional detective thriller in basic form, but the procedural elements are sometimes listless. When Herzog gets bored with simple genre mechanics, he'll take a timeout to serenade imaginary (?) iguanas with old soul songs (Johnny Adams' "Release Me") and then shoot it like a point-of-view scene from the perspective of another, unseen, reptile. In this context, it fits right in.