Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Abel Ferrara’s bleak 1992 cult classic Bad Lieutenant is remade by Werner Herzog under the clumsy title Port of Call: New Orleans, but where the original film was a punishingly grim descent into hell for star Harvey Keitel, this version has Nicholas Cage as the punishingly entertaining Terrence McDonagh, a New Orleans detective addicted to narcotics and gambling.

As the film opens, McDonagh and his partner (played by Val Kilmer) rescue a convict from a jail cell about to be inundated by the rising waters of Hurricane Katrina. Shortly afterwards, the detective, who is covering the pain of a back injury with copious amounts of illegal narcotics, is asked to investigate the bloody murder of a Senegalese family by a gang of drug-dealers, led by the flamboyant Big Fate (Alvin Xzibit Joiner). While he maintains the pretence of his day job, McDonagh is supplying his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) with cocaine, is trying to reconcile his alcoholic father (Tom Bower) with his equally drunk wife (Jennifer Coolidge) and avoiding the increasingly frantic demands of his bookie (Brad Dourif), to whom he owes a lot of money. McDonagh’s transgressions are not limited to inhaling narcotics. He steals whatever he can, shakes down Frankie’s customers for drugs, hallucinates slithering iguanas and the break-dancing souls of the recently deceased and, finally, steps over to the wrong side of the law in making a deal with the smooth Big Fate.

Cage hasn’t been this much fun to watch since the early days of his career, in films like Vampire’s Kiss and Raising Arizona. He is truly off the rails in Bad Lieutenant, bursting with nervous energy, his eyes popping wide, limbs constantly in motion. It helps, of course, that his character really is out of his mind. Herzog directs the performance with consummate facility, allowing his star to run wild and collating the results into a jittery black comedy thriller.

Although Cage maintains his mania throughout, the imbalance his histrionics brings about leads to significant problems in the second half of the film. Having spent considerable time establishing McDonagh’s problems, Herzog resolves them all in one hyper-realistic scene, a rush of conclusions played out with a blankly theatrical flourish. It’s as if the cop’s mounting problems don’t matter, or if they do, they don’t matter to Herzog. The story, from William Finkelstein, is far less important than the performances. No-one else in the cast can match Cage, but it doesn’t matter. His wild, untrammelled act turns the film into a one-man show. Despite these narrative bumps, or perhaps because of them, this version of Bad Lieutenant is a dark and devious delight, an anarchist film noir that seems, at times, almost as unhinged as its protagonist.

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