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Bad Lieutenant - Port Of Call: New Orleans (2009)
Director: Werner Herzog

review by Gary McMahon

Werner Herzog is one of my favourite filmmakers - his documentaries are often even better than his features - so when I heard that he was tackling a generic Hollywood cop thriller I knew it would end up being anything but. And I was right. The gods allow me to be right occasionally: it's a form of charity.

Bad Lieutenant - Port Of Call: New Orleans starts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with Sergeant Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), and his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer), betting on whether or not a prisoner trapped in a submerged cell will last another four hours. Terrence eventually (reluctantly) jumps in to save the prisoner, but hurts his back in the process. Terrence is given a medal and promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Six months later, suffering chronic pain and surviving on a cocktail of prescription and illegal chemicals, Terrence is called in to investigate the drug-related murder of an immigrant family, whilst scoring drugs to keep him and his high-class hooker girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), coked up to the eyeballs and building a mountain gambling debt which he's going to have to pay off by any means he can... and that's it, really.

The plot is utterly generic, and in the hands of a conventional director this would have been a terrible film full of clich�s, shootouts, and explosions. In Herzog's hands it becomes a meditation on the "bliss of evil," and an existential mystery focusing on the nature of human corruption. Herzog keeps forgetting to stick to the storyline, preferring instead to follow Cage's driven, increasingly manic protagonist around the sweaty streets of Orleans or into pointless (in terms of the plot, anyway) encounters with side characters, giving us PoV shots from the perspective of a crocodile mourning it's mate run over in the road, or a couple of imaginary iguanas sitting on Cage's coffee table.

And don't even get me started on the scene where a shot mobster has to be shot twice because "his soul is still dancing" - I'm still smiling over that one. The director does occasionally return to the plot, as if he realises he needs to pay it at least some attention because this is, after all, a Hollywood film, but thankfully he keeps forgetting about it all over again and tooling off in all kinds of interesting directions. He even takes standard action movie set-ups - a raid on a suspect's house, for example - and goes absolutely nowhere with them. If a lesser director were in charge we'd have a gunfight, or at least a tense armed stand-off, but Herzog just has Terrence go round the back of the house, enter through an unlocked door, and bring the suspect out.

I loved this film. It's odd, twitchy, occasionally slow and always erratic, and could only have been made by Herzog, a man who seems driven by passions and interests nobody else understands. I laughed out loud several times. It's also the kind of film that will get better with each viewing. Nicolas Cage gives his best performance in years - maybe even a decade - and as the film progresses he transforms into a weird, bug-eyed Quasimodo figure simply lurching from one scene to the next, one event to another, and trying to keep a grip on reality. His body is contorted by the increasing back pain; his face becomes gaunt because of the drugs and lack of sleep. He laughs at odd, inappropriate moments, and everyone else around him (apart from Kilmer, who also does well with his limited screen time) seems to be just trying to remain active in the scene without being forced off the screen by Cage's terrific, commanding performance.

This is a different film entirely from Abel Ferarra's raw and brilliant Bad Lieutenant (1992) - apparently it shares the title only because one of the producers owns the rights, and he has envisioned a franchise of BL films, each set in a different American city, and made by a different director. If this instalment is anything to go by, I say bring it on.

Bad Lieutenant



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