Sometimes you see a movie that makes you question what it is exactly that you’re watching. I am usually annoyed by this because it typically means that either 1.) The director wants to impress us with how “artsy” he can be, or 2.) It’s just a poorly conceived film. Occasionally, the film in question strikes the right balance between absurdity, humor and drama, and I’m left feeling strangely satisfied, although I may not fully understand why.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans is one such film. From the ridiculous title on down, this film lets you know that it’s not playing by an established set of rules. It’s not a typical police drama by any means. Nor is it a serious expose of corruption on the force. It’s not a typical Nicholas Cage vehicle, nor is it the sort of arty affair most people would associate with filmmaker Werner Herzog. It’s not a remake of Abel Ferrara‘s classic Bad Lieutenant (1992), nor is it a sequel. So what the fuck is it?
The most obvious answer would be that it’s a black comedy. It’s not exactly clear, however, if certain scenes are meant to be funny, or if Herzog was trying to make a serious comment about the delirium of drug addiction.
The story follows Terence McDonagh (Cage), a detective whose addiction to painkillers soon expands to include a variety of narcotics, as well as a penchant for high stakes gambling. He also likes to shake down young couples for coke, taking sexual liberties with the women when the opportunity arises. Meanwhile, he is dedicated to bringing down a trio of drug dealers involved in a multiple homicide, and protecting his junkie prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) from her often violent clientele.
McDonagh opens up a can of awesome in BLT 2.
The basic plot and character elements are similar to Ferrara’s film. Harvey Keitel‘s lieutenant was a drug addled family man trying to avenge the brutal rape of a nun, while carrying on with a junkie portrayed by real life addict Zoe Lund (who cowrote the script). But Herzog’s tone is more humorous and less brutal. I’ve never been able to take Cage seriously as an actor, and here is no exception (although I haven’t seen some of his more dramatic work, like Leaving Las Vegas). But his over-the-top performance seems to fit the character and tone of the film.
Since we are seeing the events unfold through McDonagh’s eyes, we never really know if we are witness to reality or to a hallucination. In one of the most bizarre scenes, Cage can’t take his eyes off a pair of iguanas on his desk, despite the fact that none of his colleagues can see them. From that point on, the viewer has no way of knowing if anything is what it seems.
In most films dealing with corrupt protagonists, events usually catch up to them in a slam-bang “crime doesn’t pay” finale, and that’s what we expect to happen here. But despite him doing everything wrong, McDonagh keeps coming out on top. The ending is suspiciously happy for a film of this nature. Is it all a drug induced fantasy? Several internet theories seem to point in this direction, going as far as to say that the character actually dies 2/3 of the way through the film. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I like the straightforward interpretation: He’s a morally corrupt person who nonetheless has a heart, and ends up serving the “greater good.”
But if I was on the fence at all about whether or not I liked this film, my doubts were assuaged when I skimmed the comments on IMDB. The anger from people who expected it to be another run of the mill Nic Cage action flick was obvious. Often I am annoyed when it seems that people don’t “get” a movie, but in this case, I felt like the film itself was an act of subversion, and it was fun to watch folks get all riled up.
I applaud Herzog for slipping this one innocuously into the system, and Cage for taking a chance on what is probably his strangest role since Vampire’s Kiss (1988). I even like the generic cover art, which offers zero guidance as to the manic nature of the film itself. (Check out some awesome rejected artwork here.)
Ultimately, Bad Lieutenant 2 (as I like to call it) is a film that probably never should have been made, at least not with this title, director, cast, or screenplay. But as the titular character himself might attest, sometimes even if you do everything wrong, things still work out in the end.