If you’re the kind of person who feels the need to understand, at least, what kind of film you’re watching, then this movie must be avoided at all costs. It wasn’t until the bonus features when I discovered that this was, in reality, intended as a dark comedy more than anything else. There were certainly signs in the movie that might have led me to that conclusion, not the least of which is a 2-minute Iguana Cam moment that had me questioning what might have found its way into my iced tea. The other clue should have been the over the top caricature of a character I found in the performance of Nicolas Cage. But then, the trouble with Cage is, you really never know for sure when he’s kidding around or trying to be drop dead serious. In any case, even armed with that information, I’m not sure it’s possible to pin this film down to any particular genre or style.
Part of the problem comes from the movie’s title. We are immediately led to believe that this movie might have something to do with the Harvey Keitel film, Bad Lieutenant. It does not. Even director Herzog was very unhappy with the studio’s decision to tie the film to those expectations by using the franchise title. Of course, it was intended to add some kind of name value recognition to the project. It didn’t really work at all. The film only played at just under a hundred screens and pulled in less than $2 million of its $25 million budget. So no one was buying the misleading name. You’d think many times that number would have checked it out just to see what Cage was up to.
This film doesn’t have anything at all to do with the original movie. We’re not talking sequel, remake, reboot, or anything else. There are no recurring characters. About the only thing the films have in common is the morally bankrupt title character, both coincidentally police lieutenants.
Lt. Terence McDonagh (Cage) is a homicide detective in New Orleans at the time Katrina hits. When he and his partner Steve Pruit (Kilmer) find a prisoner locked in a cell with flood waters rising, he severely injures his back saving the criminal’s life. The subsequent chronic pain requires tons of painkillers and eventually all sorts of illegal drugs from crack to heroin. His girlfriend, Frankie (Mendes) is a hooker who is also addicted to various illegal substances. His spin down into the seamy side of New Orleans causes him to be pretty much incompetent. Now he’s placed in charge of a huge high profile murder of five family members in their home. And, of course, McDonagh is partying and doing favors for his number one suspect. Like a modern day Inspector Clouseau he manages to mess up forward and fail upwards.
This film is not about the murder investigation at all. It’s strictly a dark comedy character study as we watch Cage completely self destruct but somehow remain functional enough to succeed. You really can’t take any of this stuff seriously, or you’ll just find yourself getting frustrated. It’s almost asking too much to accept Cage’s over the top performance and not believe that anyone on the force appears to have a clue that the character is out of control. Eve Mendes is actually a stabilizing performer in this movie that anchors Cage just enough to keep the character from looking entirely too made up. Val Kilmer has very little to do most of the time and is wasted for the most part. You’ll find far better characters and performances in the underworld acquaintances Cage deals with. From Xzibit playing Big Fate, his suspect and drug buddy, to a wonderful character played by Brad Dourif. He plays Ned a bookie friend with who McDonagh gets in too deep. It’s all about the characters here, and your enjoyment factor will completely depend on how much you can handle Cage at his eccentric over-the-top worst, or best, depending on your point of view. There’s no question that he is a polarizing performer. You’re going to either love or hate this movie based almost entirely on Cage’s slouching, depraved, marble-mouthed McDonagh.
Finally, I have to say something about the last 15 minutes. You might consider this a SPOILER ALERT. Herzog invents a coda to the film which isn’t exactly easy to understand. I was convinced it was some kind of drug-induced dream, because in short order things all start to not only straighten out for McDonagh, but go incredibly well. The supporting cast plays these scenes just a little off. You’ll have to draw your own conclusion as to Herzog’s intent here. I thought I knew, but then I didn’t.
Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 21 mbps. The high definition is actually pretty good. Detail is quite high, and the sharpness and contrast are all rather extraordinary. There is a gritty reality to the colors and texture of the film without looking raw, which too often substitutes for gritty realism. Black levels are solid. The print is in perfect condition. It’s a very nice image presentation that is actually quite invisible.
The Dolby TrueHD pretty much does what it is intended to do. There’s a lot of contemplative dialog here. You can’t always catch what Cage is saying, but that’s because he’s slurring his voice in some odd accent that is, at times, not very clear. The score reminds me of something Stewart Copeland would do. I even heard shades of the Spyro video games from time to time. It’s best when there’s some nice moody brass with just a hint of New Orleans jazz and blues. The audio does deliver when it needs to. It just isn’t asked to deliver all that often.
Photography Book: This is a collection of set photos taken by Herzog’s wife Lena.
The Making Of Port Of Call New Orleans: (31:10) This is strictly raw footage taken from the set on various production days. I was glad to hear Herzog talk about this being a bleak and dark comedy. It made it all a bit easier for me to swallow. They carve up a real dead alligator here for one of the scenes. If anything you really get a sense of Herzog’s eccentricity here.
Then there’s the rather eccentric style of director Werner Herzog. These guys appear to be made for each other. They both have a rather twisted sense of art and humor that makes their films love ’em or hate ’em affairs. Herzog can’t resist his trademark animal montages and delivers two here. The first is a dead alligator out on I10. The other is a two minute iguana dance after a particularly messy shoot-out. Herzog knows he’s going to turn folks off with these self-indulgent exercises, but he pretty much dares you to take it or leave it. I think I might appreciate it better a second time. But for now I have to say I’ve “been down this road before and it didn’t take”.