Sometimes you see a movie, and two thirds of the way through you know that no matter how it ends, this is going to be one you'll be raving about for years to come. The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans has Nicolas Cage playing the part of the injured, dirty, hopped-up cop Terence McDonagh like the Humphrey Bogart of In A Lonely Place and The Maltese Falcon. Inspired by Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant, this film gives us a bad cop in Cage who's not half as bad as the world he works in. His every corrupt moment - from confiscating drugs from drunken couples for his own use, to threatening old ladies - is reflective of the police force, the government and the whole system.
This is film noir with dialogue of the hard-boiled variety. Cage delivers terse, deadpan lines that sound picked from the quick-witted staccato speak of 1940s cinema. And like the detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett, the story is definitely pulpy, and very enjoyably so. As a bad lieutenant, McDonagh is consistently high on painkillers (but needs crack and heroin to really take the edge off his back pain), has an expensive gambling habit and a high-class prostitute as a girlfriend. When a family of five African immigrants is executed, he must catch the drug-dealing killer on the testimony of one frightened 15-year-old delivery boy.
The lieutenant's drug addiction is handled in the nervous, melodramatic way of classics like The Lost Weekend and The Man With The Golden Arm. When high, he's verging on hysterical and hallucinating images of iguanas. Cage is in full-on, over-the-top Wild At Heart mode here. He stalks around the screen stiffly like a member of the undead, and as things go from bad to worse, takes to bouts of crazed laughter. As informed as the dialogue is, there are times when it's pure camp. Cage's delivery is perfect enough to have you laughing over breakfast the next morning. Genuinely good dialogue is hard to come by, so I won't deny you the pleasure of it with quotation, but it's safe to say that despite the truly grim narrative, this is really funny stuff.
Director Werner Herzog (who insists this is neither a remake or a sequel to Bad Lieutenant) filmed in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, and there are no pretty pictures of the French Quarter here. The look is, as one would expect, murky, end-of-the-world rough, with contrasting glimpses of gaudy casinos. Two standout scenes capture the situation poetically - an exotic fish swims in a glass of water placed on the desk of a dead child, and a dying, disemboweled crocodile lies squirming in the middle of a highway. Just like the hallucinatory iguana-eye-view moments, these are odd interludes perhaps, but ingenious all the same.
The hyped, reckless energy Herzog and Cage create justifies the silliness. Screenwriter William M. Finkelstein previously penned episodes of NYPD Blue and L.A. Law and as such imbibes the plot with a television-like trot. At the center of all the wackiness is a sweet love story. Eva Mendes plays McDonagh's girlfriend, Frankie, and despite the obvious lack of fidelity between the two, the lieutenant seems to purvey some real affection for her. It is here that we see good in the bad man and the possibility of his survival against the odds. Their relationship is a note of sweetness in a sour-faced world.
The Bad Lieutenant:
Port Of Call New Orleans
Directed by Werner Herzog. Starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer. Rated R