I haven’t seen the Harvey Keitel “Bad Lieutenant” from 1992 so I can’t really speak to whether Werner Herzog’s new film is a remake, a reimagining, or a whole new story with similar themes. I dislike remakes as a general rule, but in this case, I suspect it doesn’t really matter. “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” is a Herzog film starring Nicolas Cage, and both of these men are fully capable of putting their unique stamp on anything they touch. Hell, I couldn’t even be mad at Cage for remaking the “The Wicker Man” because his performance was so hysterically over-the-top. The beloved original film couldn’t have been further from my mind as he bounded around a pagan island in a bear suit punching old ladies. Nicolas Cage is a joy to watch, and Werner Herzog is a brilliant storyteller. It would really be hard to go wrong with such a winning pair.
After slumming it in a few roles, as he does every couple of years, Nicolas Cage returns to his top manic form as Terence McDonagh, a man who encompasses both good and bad cop. The story picks up in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina, where an inappropriately high-spirited McDonagh and his partner, Stevie Pruit (played by The Man Who Ate Val Kilmer), loot the lockers of their colleagues in a water-logged station. When they come across a prisoner still locked in a cell, the water rising all around him, McDonagh debates with himself for several minutes about whether or not he wants ruin his $50 underpants and make the rescue. This is our introduction to a man who is never sure who he will be from moment to moment. Eventually he does decide to jump into the sewage. This fateful decision results in a commendation and a promotion to Lieutenant as well as a back injury and a lifetime prescription to painkillers. Only McDonagh and Pruit know what a lucky break this actually was for him. To everyone else, he was selfless hero who showed unflinching bravery in the face of danger. This undeserving, yet undisputed respect is the reason he is able to become the Bad Lieutenant. It’s an origin story for a really f****d up accidental superhero.
Several years later, Lt. McDonagh has settled into a successful career as a functional drug addict, making the best of a city that’s never been able to put itself back together. He’s called to a murder scene where an entire family of Senegalese immigrants has been executed because the patriarch was dealing heroin on the wrong turf. This investigation leads to an incredible series of events, which threaten to unravel McDonagh’s structured chaos and expose his dark side.
Living up to his title, McDonagh does some pretty terrible things. Some of them are during his attempts to solve the crime, but many of them are just so that he can get his next big fix. He’ll do anything from pocketing weed during a raid to stealing from the evidence room to shaking down kids just for a hit off their pipe. Whatever gets him through the night; it’s all right. This is a man whose daily problems include needing to find some coke to counterbalance the heroin he’s accidentally just snorted. And yet, it’s impossible not to like him at least a little. He does follow a sort of drug-addled morality. He tries to help the people he cares about including his alcoholic father and his coked-up girlfriend/dealer (Eva Mendes, reunited with Cage in a sort of wacky “Ghost Rider” alternate universe). At one point, his good deeds find him on a road trip with a teenage murder witness and a dog. Through it all, his first priority is getting high and that tends to make his already sticky situations all the stickier. He never messes up when Big Brother is looking, though this may be more luck than skill. But it’s absolutely the reason he is able to carry on as he does for as long as he does.
Brad Dourif makes a delightful appearance as McDonagh’s amiably agitated bookie. It’s also great to see Jennifer Coolidge in a dramatic role for once and Fairuza Balk in any role at all. But these are just nuts on a Nicolas Cage sundae. The man is at his best when he’s playing a character at his worst. He is the affable f**k-up. It even earned him an Academy Award once.
Of course we must also give credit to the incredible direction of Werner Herzog, who successfully marries black comedy with noir. His “Bad Lieutenant” is like what would happen if Werner had Oliver Stone, Roman Polanski, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers over for a mescaline hot tub party. Some people might think that sounds like a terrible evening. And maybe experiencing it first hand would be. But it sure is fun to watch.