I’ve cooled on Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans since I saw it two weeks ago. The film is still thoroughly recommended – it’s batshit insane and a ton of fun to watch with a packed audience that gets the hilarity Werner Herzog and Nic Cage are mining – but I have a feeling this is a one and done picture, a movie that I’ll never revisit. There’s looniness at the heart of the film, but it’s not real looniness. It’s put-on looniness, a pose of crazy. It’s a good pose – both Herzog and Cage know crazy – but it’s a pose intended to deliver the punchline to the set up ‘So Werner Herzog and Nic Cage are remaking Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant.’
Except of course this isn’t a remake. You hear that a lot in Hollywood – this is a reimagining, we went back to the source material, we’re rebooting – but Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans really is not a remake of the first film. It’s a sort of spiritual sequel, the next entry in an anthology whose theme is bad cops who booze and use drugs and abuse their authority and position. Nic Cage’s character is nothing like the one that Harvey Keitel created, and Herzog’s interests are nowhere near those of Ferrara. There’s no Catholic guilt, no man at war with himself. In fact the lack of remorse and consequence is the crux of the entire joke of the movie.
As a joke of a movie it’s a blast. The movie is funny, odd and paced in a deliriously askew manner. The Nic Cage here is a direct continuation of the Nic Cage who starred in Raising Arizona and who ate a roach in Vampire’s Kiss; this isn’t the guy ramming his squirmy weirdness into all manner of straight-ahead mainstream roles. This is the guy reveling in his squirmy weirdness, and while the pitch of the performance is inconsistent – it’s possible he changed his mind about how he wanted to play the character halfway through filming, or at least it feels that way – the performance itself never stops being entertaining. He’s going huge, playing this character – a crack smoking, hooker loving, hard betting, corrupt beyond belief cop in post-Katrina New Orleans – as hard as he can. It’s one of the most classic scenery chewing performances, and you get exhausted just watching Cage as he slurs and slumps and tics his way through the film. Gloriously over the top, Cage can elicit howls of laughter with just a cock of his shoulders, an entrance into a room and a reaction shot. Forget about it when he’s actually saying and doing things.
How weird is Cage? He’s up against bloated late-period Val Kilmer and Kilmer’s the complete and total straight guy. Cage makes Kilmer look just totally normal, and anyone who has seen Kilmer’s recent roles knows that’s an incredible feat. Cage stalks through the film outweirding everyone, including Brad Dourif (I told you, he’s totally over the top here) and loving every minute of it.
Herzog is also obviously having a good time. He manages to squeeze in his personal obsessions, including various wildlife, and he’s just taking the entire endeavour to 11. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching this film and thinking Herzog is serious, but I think you could be excused for trying to figure out what’s behind the joke. Surely Herzog is saying… something. Anything. But in reality he’s just fucking around, having a hoot, and that’s it.
Which is sort of disappointing. While Herzog’s fiction films have not been up to snuff in a long time, his documentary work remains fantastic, and there’s something at the heart of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans that feels like it could be a Herzog doc, an examination of this insane cop and the crazy, post-Katrina world in which he works. But Herzog is putting nothing of himself here, except for some reptilian gags, and so the movie is eventually revealed as empty.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is one of the year’s funniest movies, a truly bizarre and wacky series of over the top moments, but Herzog is capable of so much more. He can be this funny and weird and also have a deeper point; there’s something juvenile about just poking a stick in the police movie’s eye. I’m okay with juvenile, but I had hoped for at least adolescent.
7.5 out of 10