WARNING! MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Once in a great while, a movie comes along that is so insane, so crazy, so completely out of its mind wild, that you almost can’t believe what you are seeing. BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (or THE BAD LIEUTENANT PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS as it’s written in the opening title) is that movie! It’s the most delightfully cracked out movie about a crazed drug addict policeman I’ve ever seen in my life. It is not one of those so-bad-it’s-good movies at all. This movie is the result of some very talented artists getting together and having a great deal of fun making a really cool, weird, funny and surreal cop movie.
I don’t know if this is an actual remake of ABEL FERRARA’S brilliant 1992 BAD LIEUTENANT, which is an agonizingly hellish character study of an out of control cop, that is played with amazing intensity by HARVEY KEITEL. There are several similarities in both the plot structure and character details, but this new BAD LIEUTENANT is a much different beast altogether. The original was much more serious and there was very little sympathy for the protagonist, who wasn’t even given a name, but referred to only as The Lieutenant in the end credits.
The new BAD LIEUTENANT is named Terence McDonagh and is played with comic exuberance by NICOLAS CAGE, who hasn’t been this awesome since LEAVING LAS VEGAS. His career of late has been spotty to say the least, with a few great movies like ADAPTATION and LORD OF WAR, mixed in with a lot of big budget action fluff. It’s been awhile since he’s really cut loose in a role and he tears this movie up with his energy. This is the CAGE of VAMPIRE’S KISS and RAISING ARIZONA. The manic, funny and inventive CAGE who makes the most out of each take. His character is a man addicted to crack, coke, heroin, vicodin, gambling and sex, who abuses his power at every opportunity he gets, and yet he’s a very likable guy. Even though his methods are totally crazy and completely unpredictable, he’s a really good detective and he gets results, as he breaks every law imaginable in the process. CAGE’S performance is a tour de force! He should get 10 Oscars!
How this movie came together is beyond me. I can’t imagine there’s been a clamoring for a BAD LIEUTENANT revisit over the 17 years since the first. When I first read that WERNER HERZOG was directing a remake, I thought “The legendary German filmmaker responsible for FITZCARRALDO, NOSFERATU, GRIZZLY MAN and RESCUE DAWN wants to do a reboot of BAD LIEUTENANT? Huh?” It’s an odd choice indeed, but HERZOG is an odd director and he has made a very odd film and I’m so glad of that. His BAD LIEUTENANT is given humanity right off the bat, where with the original you really have to search for something to feel sympathetic for.
The film starts off in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, with detective Terence McDonagh (CAGE) and his colleague (VAL KILMER) emptying out a fellow officer’s locker. They come across a criminal still locked in a flooding cell and in an act of heroism, McDonagh jumps in to save him, injuring his back in the process. He is prescribed vicodin by a doctor and when we see him a year later, he’s become a full blown addict who’s graduated to crack, coke and heroin. He also has a bad gambling problem that gets his bookie (BRAD DOURIF) a bit testy.
When he’s put in charge of an investigation to find whoever was responsible for a drug related multiple homicide (in the original it was a case involving the rape of a nun), he throws himself fully into the assignment. The movie then swings back and forth between CAGE’S working the case and engaging in his own criminal activities. One scene he’s interviewing a suspect and gathering clues, the next he’s robbing drugs from a young couple of club goers and forcing the guy to watch him fuck his girlfriend.
EVA MENDES is great as the BAD LIEUTENANT’S hooker girlfriend. Despite the fact that their relationship is based on doing drugs together and ripping off her johns, they actually have a few very tender scenes together. There’s a moment they share concerning a hidden silver spoon that’s downright heartwarming. No shit!
FAIRUZA BALK shows up as a corrupt traffic cop with some really nice boots and BRAD DOURIF is typically terrific as CAGE’S bookie, whom unlike his character’s counterpart in the original, joins the rest of us in falling for the BAD LIEUTENANT’S charm. Also, the rapper XZIBIT turns out a really well executed performance as Big Fate the gangster. He too, is a totally likable scumbag.
There are individual scenes in the new BAD LIEUTENANT that are sheer brilliance. One of my favorites involves a crack hallucination CAGE has involving two iguanas, that’s set to an old blues tune. The scene just keeps playing out, supremely confident in its own complete absurdity and I couldn’t stop laughing.
Another one involves a group of gangsters being shot down. CAGE, in the midst of another drug delusion, exclaims to the killers, “Shoot him again, his soul is still dancing!” The camera then pans over to someone dressed like the fallen gangster, breakdancing in the middle of the room. It’s fucking AMAZING!
The film was written by WILLIAM FINKELSTEIN and I’m curious if it was his intention to pattern it after the original BAD LIEUTENANT, or if it was an original idea and the marketing department attached it to the FERRARA film. There are a few similarities in the plot, but overall this is a far different film and stands on its own as a great piece of cop noir. FINKELSTEIN’S previous work as a television writer for NYPD BLUE, LAW & ORDER, L.A. LAW and COP ROCK have served him well and he has written a truly unique and funny film.
WERNER HERZOG’S direction is probably what sends this movie sailing over the fence the most. His attachment alone is what takes this film from being a simple cop thriller and turns it into an art-house masterpiece. It’s his genius in taking such care with the little moments, (like CAGE reading a child’s poem about a fish) that make this a much more enjoyable BAD LIEUTENANT than we’ve previously seen. Not that ABEL FERRARA’S film is any less great or powerful, it’s just a different sensibility with the exact same subject.
Which is why I’d like to see a BAD LIEUTENANT franchise develop out of this. My pitch is this: each new film is the exact same formula – drugged up Lieutenant tries to solve a case he’s assigned while on a self destructive gambling and crack binge. It’s a different city, director and lead actor each time. A franchise that continues to remake and take a new spin at the same storyline. I think that would be cool. BAD LIEUTENANT: LOS ANGELES directed by DAVID LYNCH and starring ROBERT DOWNEY JR.; BAD LIEUTENANT: DALLAS directed by the COEN BROTHERS and starring MATT DILLON; BAD LIEUTENANT: PARIS directed by ROMAN POLANSKI and starring GERARD DEPARDIEU; and BAD LIEUTENANT: MIAMI directed by LARS VON TRIER and starring DON JOHNSON (now that would be REALLY crazy!).
See BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS because it is an awesome piece of crazy independent cinema! It’s like smoking a rock out of your lucky crack pipe, without the withdrawls and iguanas. I leave you with trailers for both the original and the new one. Enjoy!