Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans

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Though borrowing the central character and a few other concepts from Abel Ferrara's 1992 cult and scandalous film, "Bad Lieutenant," Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans," hardly counts as a remake, and not only because of the change of locale from New York City to New Orleans in the post-Katrina disaster era.
Herzog's justifiably international reputation may be the only reason why "Bad Lieutenant" world premiered at the Venice Film Festival (in Competition, no less), and later played at the prestigious Telluride Film Fest and the more accessible Toronto Film Fest (in Special Presentations).
I am partial to Ferrara's film (recently out on a restored DVD version), starring Harvey Keitel, which is not only one of his very best works but also a highlight of original and audacious American independent cinema of the early 1990s. On its own terms, this new, reimagined "Bad Lieutenant" is enjoyable, even if it doesn't entirely succeed as a thriller-actioner or a character study. The film is well directed and well acted by Nicolas Cage, in one of his wildest, most eccentric performances, but it lacks the spiritual and religious dimensions of the 1992 picture.
You could say that if Ferrara rose above the sleazy and sensationalistic elements of the material in his picture, creating a serious work about sin, guilt, and redemption, Herzog sinks down to those levels, making a fast-paced, ultra-cynical, erratic film by imposing on it several changes, not all of which dramatically justifiable.
Narratively and stylistically, "Bad Lieutenant" is a hybrid. It's neither good or deep enough to qualify as an art film, nor sufficiently violent and action-oriented to qualify as a genre flick. Unable to balance a plot-driven policier with a psychological character study, Herzog's latest is a noirish thriller whose commercial fate depends entirely on the pull of its magnetic star, Nicolas Cage, who's perfectly cast.
Credited to William Finkelstein, the narrative is incoherent, erratic, and diffuse, at least partly due to Herzog's "intervention," evident in at least half a dozen crucial scenes added to the original scenario. In the press notes, Herzog boasts, "As usual during my work as a director, the screenplay kept shifting, demanding its own life. I invented new scenes, such as a new beginning and new end, the iguanas, the "dancing" soul (of a character shot down), the childhood story of pirate's treasure, and a spoon of sterling silver."
Herzog film is a sleazy, B-level, borderline exploitation feature in more senses than one. Largely dealing with low-lifes, in and out of the police force, "Bad Lieutenant" almost takes pride in displaying the immoral and amoral conduct of its central figure, Lt. Terence McDonaugh (Cage), a rogue, drug-addict detective that feels equally at home with prostitutes, dealers, and criminals as with his peers and officers in the police force.  Defined by a set of complex contradictions, Terence belongs to a family of cops (his father was one), and in his own mind, he functions as a pro devoted to his job.  In the first scene, Terence risks his life to save a man from drowning.
Nominally, Finkelstein's pulpy, second-rate yarn begins with the discovery of the corpses of five Senegalese illegals robbed out and brutally murdered in a big drug hit. Pursuing their suppliers and killers, it takes time before Terence gets to the main suspect, a mysterious operator named Big Fate (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner) and his clique.
The murder mystery proves secondary and uninteresting to Herzog the director. For long stretches of time, he seems to forget what the movie is really about, instead showing insatiable appetite to the graphic depiction of Terence's increasingly outrageous and erratic behavior. Thus, most of the time, Terence is playing fast and loose with the law. To get his way—and he always gets his way—he wields his badge as often as he wields his gun. You don't have to be a Freudian psychologist to see that the gun is a blatant phallic symbol for a man, whose drug addiction, persistent physical pain, and sleep deprivation prevent him from experiencing sexual arousal, even when interacting with the prostitute he loves and protects.
Terence's favorite activity is hanging outside an upscale nightclub and harassing young, high and horny couples, by stripping them of their drugs, stealing their cash, and insisting on screwing the girls in front of their boyfriends. Interludes during the search also include periodic visitation of his sexy prostitute-hooker Frankie (Eva Mendes), who always greets him with a smile and a question, "Did you bring me anything?," expecting a regular supply of coke or heroin, which they both use regularly, no matter what the consequences are.
Other bizarre incidents involve a big dog that needs tending and is taken from one location to another. The fascination with animals continues throughout the yarn in at least three scenes that involve alligators and iguanas, which get the star treatment by being photographed in mega-close-ups by Herzog himself using handheld camera.
Terence's whole behavior is motivated by greed, desire, compulsion and obsession. Here is a cop, who we are led to believe was once good at his job but has lost any sense of morality, direction, and conscience. There's hardly a scene in which he doesn't smoke dope, snort coke or sniff heroin.
Ultimately, what saves this "Bad Lieutenant" from being just a derivative, silly, and sleazy flick are the humor, which prevails in the dialogue and characterizations; the level of technical execution even if the visual style is impersonal; and especially the high caliber of acting, all the way from Cage, who's predictably over-the-top, to the dozen superlative supporting actors that surround him.
It comes as no surprise that the film's humor is zany and maniacal and often derives from situations that are so absurd and preposterous that you may find yourself reacting to them with a mixture of laughter, shock, and disbelief.The whole film gets progressively zanier and hysterical, as Terence descends into the kind of hellish reality that represents for him the only way of living.
Spoiler Alert
Unlike Ferrara's film, there is no moral retribution, repentance, and redemption in this tale. In the last scene, Terence and the man he had saved early on, lean against the glass of a huge aquarium where sharks, rays and large fish move slowly. Staring at the fish, Terence utters the film's last word, "Do fish have dreams?"
Terence McDonaugh – Nicolas Cage
Frankie Donnenfield – Eva Mendes
Stevie Pruit – Val Kilmer
Big Fate – Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner
Heidi – Fairuza Balk
Armand Benoit – Shawn Hatosy
Genevieve – Jennifer Coolidge
Pat McDonagh – Tom Bower
Capt. James Brasser – Vondie Curtis Hall
Ned Schoenholtz – Brad Dourif
Binnie Rogers – Irma P. Hall
Daryl – Denzel Whitaker
Mundt – Michael Shannon
Justin – Shea Whigham
Midget – Lucius Baston
A Millennium, Nu Image, First Look Studios presentation of an Edward R. Pressman production. 
Produced by Pressman, Randall Emmett, Alan Polsky, Gaby Polsky, Stephen Belafonte. Executive producers, Avi Lerner, Dany Dimbort, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, Elliot Rosenblatt. Directed by Werner Herzog.
Screenplay, William Finkelstein.
Camera, Peter Zeitlinger.
Editor, Joe Bini.
Music, Mark Isham.
Production designer, Tony Corbett; set designer, Christina E. Kim; set decorator, Leonard Spears.
Costume designer, Jill Newell.
Sound, Jay Meagher; supervising sound designer, Michael Baird.
Stunt coordinator, Russell Towery.
Assistant director, Michael Zimbrich. Casting, Johanna Ray.
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 121 Minutes