You only needed to consider the filmmakers involved to feel pretty confident of that assessment. Abel Ferrara’s 1992 original Bad Lieutenant, with Harvey Keitel as the nameless corrupt New York cop, was steeped in the guilt and redemption of Catholicism, and Keitel’s degradation was taken to an operatic pitch. But Werner Herzog—who was taking on the remake—is a different breed of filmmaker entirely. His approach to obsession and madness, from Fitzcarraldo to Grizzly Man, has always felt more clinical than passionate, observed with a dry fascination.
There was, however, one wild card in any prediction of how Port of Call: New Orleans would turn out—and that would be Nicolas Cage, whose wild-card wildness has fluctuated on screen in recent years nearly as much as his hairline. Here he plays Terence McDonagh, the titular New Orleans cop who, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, suffers a serious back injury while rescuing a trapped prisoner from a flooding jail. Six months later, McDonagh is addicted to pain killers, hassling people for sex and/or drugs, stealing dope from the precinct evidence room and running up gambling debts. When he’s assigned to lead the investigation into the murder of an entire family of Senegalese immigrants—connected to a drug dealer known as Big Fate (Xzibit)—it’s not even the fifth-most-interesting part of his day.
William Finkelstein’s adapted screenplay doesn’t provide a lot of context for how bad McDonagh was before his fateful good deed, though he was clearly no Boy Scout. His interactions with his call-girl girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes) and his bookie (Brad Dourif) are approached simply as givens, along with his willingness to rein in the different excesses of his overzealous partner (Val Kilmer). He’s bad, but he’s kind of an enigma, never making it particularly clear what kind of redemption—if any—may be coming to McDonagh.
That doesn’t mean Cage’s performance isn’t terrifically entertaining in that unhinged way that only a great Nic Cage performance can be. He’s done so much wretched paycheck work over the past decade that it’s easy to forget his distinctive brand of onscreen mania circa Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, Face/Off, etc. Here he fashions an almost Shakespearean-tragic protagonist, limping along with one shoulder hunched high above the other, his face often contorted into either a snarl of rage or a blissful high. It’s the kind of over-the-top work that few actors seem to be able to pull off, a screen performance that crackles with intensity even as it avoids anything remotely resembling naturalism.
And Herzog—surprisingly, but wisely—takes his filmmaking cues from his leading man’s gonzo energy. Most of Port of Call: New Orleans’ most memorable moments find Herzog linking his camera straight to McDonagh’s drug-frazzled brain, including several shots from the point of view of nearby reptiles—an alligator, a snake, an iguana. He treats the dumping of a body by drug dealers as an almost incidental bit of background business and revels in the freakiness of even peripheral characters. And there’s nothing to match the whacked-out hilarity of McDonagh demanding that a dead gangster be shot again because he—and we—can see that his soul is still break-dancing.
There’s often a strangely detached quality to Port of Call: New Orleans, as though it’s always clear that Herzog is more interested in playing around with the genre than crafting something with an emotional punch. Characters have their epiphanies, and good deeds are rewarded in the end, but it’s not as though the film leaves you with a sense of moral satisfaction. It’s more the sense that you’ve been witness to a weird Frankenstein experiment in grafting a director to incongruous material, with Nicolas Cage serving as the jolt of electricity. It’s not often you can say it of a remake, but you’ve probably never seen anything quite like this before.
THE BAD LIEUTENANT—PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS
Nicolas Cage Eva Mendes Val Kilmer