Fear and loathing in the 9th Ward: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 19, 2009)

Who could have guessed that the man who helmed art house classics like Fitzcarraldo, Woyzeck and Aguirre the Wrath of God would one day make a film entitled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans? Then again, one might argue that the iconoclastic Werner Herzog’s career would be nothing, if not perennially unpredictable.

Herzog’s latest film, arguably adorned with the year’s most unwieldy title for squeezing onto a marquee, is a (sort of) sequel to Abel Ferrara’s highly controversial 1992 neo-noir about a drug and gambling-addicted NYC homicide investigator. In that film, Harvey Keitel gave a completely fearless and thoroughly maniacal performance as a “cop on the edge” who made most of the criminals he was paid to apprehend look like choir boys. Not an easy act to follow-but Nicholas Cage proves to be more than up to the task here.

To my observation, Cage has demonstrated two basic personas in his repertoire over the years. First, there is the Slack-Jawed, Dead-eyed Mumbler (Peggy Sue Got Married, Moonstruck, Red Rock West, Leaving Las Vegas). His other character is the Manic, Wild-eyed Loon (Wild at Heart, Vampire’s Kiss, Kiss of Death, Face/Off). Personally, I get a real kick out of his performances in the latter mode, and it goes without saying that you can now add the role of “bad” Lt. Terence McDonagh to that section of his resume.

As far as I could glean, there is no effort to bridge with Ferrara’s film and explain how Lt. McDonagh transitioned from NYC to New Orleans. Not that it really matters. Anyone who has followed Herzog’s career probably has figured out by now that he is perfectly content to wallow in his own peculiar universe. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing-it’s what makes his work so continually interesting to me. The “plot” ostensibly concerns itself with the murder of a Senegalese family, and the police investigation. Not that the “plot” really matters, either (although Herzog’s post-Katrina milieu is quite atmospheric).

No, if you are going to watch this film (which has “destined to become a midnight cult item” written all over it), I’ll tell you right now that you needn’t concern yourself with trying to follow the (probably deliberately) convoluted and complex murder mystery. You’ll be too busy asking yourself questions like “Did I just see what I think I just saw?” as Herzog and screenwriter William M. Finkelstein proceed to turn the “cop on the edge” genre on its head with every blackly comic twist and turn.

Cage and the rest of the cast (including Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Brad Dourif and Jennifer Coolidge) all seem to be in on the director’s joke, and play it to the hilt. By the time you’ve processed Herzog’s use of the “alligator/iguana-cam”, you will have to make a decision to either run for the exit, or go with the flow and say to yourself “Well…I’ve bought the ticket, I’m gonna take the ride.”

This is the most twisted noir I’ve seen since Tough Guys Don’t Dance. So do I think you should rush out and see this? That depends. If you are looking for a refreshing alternative to the usual fourth-quarter Hollywood offerings (Oscar-baiting dramas, prestige biopics and bloated, CGI-laden epics in 3-D)-by all means, knock yourself out. But don’t say I didn’t warn you-if you don’t consider an inspired line like “Shoot him again-his soul is still dancing!” to be pure  genius, then you’d best keep away.

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