The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans (2009)

Down by law

Not so much a remake of the 1992 Abel Ferrara cop classic, which starred Harvey Keitel in the lead role, as a total reimagining, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans is an acquired taste. It is an overwhelming and, at times, difficult ode to unchecked power and excess but, if you surrender yourself to Herzog’s vision, it’s an unforgettable and exhilarating experience.

As the film opens, New Orleans is at the mercy of Hurricane Katrina. Against the advice of his thoroughly unpleasant colleague Stevie (Val Kilmer), cop Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) leaps into the flood to save the life of a prisoner and, in doing so, injures his back. Six months later, McDonagh’s heroism has earned him a promotion to Lieutenant, but the constant pain has given way to some serious drug abuse. When a local family is murdered by a drugs gang, McDonagh heads up the investigation but, distracted by his addictions – which include alcohol, sex and gambling – and troubles with his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), McDonagh is soon using his position to feed his mounting needs. As the line between good and bad gets ever more blurred, McDonagh’s behaviour is soon spiralling violently out of control

There is no denying it, McDonagh is a distasteful character, operating in a devastated city where the floodgates have been opened to vice and corruption. But whereas Ferrara presented his central figure with no mercy, here there is an underlying element of sympathy which makes this Bad Lieutenant rather more accessible. There are valid reasons behind McDonagh’s antisocial antics which, while they don’t excuse it, do make his behaviour understandable.

And, in Cage’s hands, McDonagh becomes one of the most vivid and memorable characters of recent years. After making some seriously bad judgements – Ghost Rider, Next, Knowing et al – Cage has finally found a role that he was born to play. His natural intensity and propensity for extremes are absolutely fitting here, turning McDonagh into a nervy, tripped-out and totally unpredictable beast. Witness the nursing home scene between McDonagh and two elderly witnesses; played badly, it could have turned into juvenile farce but here it’s pitch-perfectly comic, tragic and jaw-droppingly reprehensible. It sums up the trichotomy of emotions Cage brings to this role, and it’s surely one of the stand out performances of his career.

And if Cage was born to star in this film, Herzog was born to make it. There are moments here that perhaps no other filmmaker could have captured without ridicule; the unwavering stare of an iguana only McDonagh can see, for example, or a road traffic accident viewed through the eye of a roadside alligator – both placed in the foreground of the action for a length of time that would have brought other, less confident, filmmakers out in a cold sweat. If it sounds bizarre, well, it is; but intentionally so. When you’re dealing with such an unhinged character you have to embrace the crazy, and Herzog does this like no other. And rather than detracting from the narrative, Herzog’s off-centre approach serves to draw the viewer further in to McDonagh’s state of mind.

Elsewhere, performances are solid. Mendes gives an edgy yet warm performance as McDonagh’s muse, revealing a heart of gold that’s touching despite the cliché. Rapper-turned-actor Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner is good as drug kingpin Big Fate, while the ever-wonderful Jennifer Coolidge steals her scenes as the alcoholic partner of McDonagh’s estranged father. But, of course, this is Cage’s film and, together, he and Herzog make for an audacious and mesmerising double-act that has to be seen to be believed.

4 stars

Read our interview with The Bad Lieutenant star Nicolas Cage

Stars Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes
Director Werner Herzog
Screenplay William Finkelstein
Certificate 18
Distributor Lions Gate
Running Time 2hrs 2mins
Released May 21