Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans Review: A Complex and Effective Moral Tale of Vices and Human Nature

It’s an unfortunate circumstance for any actor to be considered untalented or for that matter makes a living at not trying very hard. Ever since his academy award win in 1995 for a hauntingly moving performance in Leaving Las Vegas Nicholas Cage left behind his acting charisma in exchange for action star mediocrity. There was no doubt that Nicolas Cage was an above average actor glancing at his performances in Raising Arizona, The Cotton Club, and of course the romantic comedy classic Moonstruck. But with his starring role in German director Werner Herzog’s new film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Cage ignites the screen with a riveting performance that balances severe vices and a dark sense of humor. This morally ambiguous world set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is complex in its presentation and even more difficult to pinpoint the meaning behind the “ends justify the means” protagonist. In the middle of the film we see a court building proclaiming “This is a Government of Law, Not of Men,” which gives curiosity to the intention of filmmaker Werner Herzog’s take on law and order. Because government is an institution of man, along with it’s laws, and men are frail, weak, sinful, and animalistic, the film uses it’s well developed and morally corrupt protagonist to shed a light on a bleak world where our vices as humans are natural and how difficult it is to curb our nature.

As this ominous noir opens up with a snake lurking its way in a devastated prison building we are introduced to our protagonist Terence McDonough, a cocky yet angry Nicholas Cage, and his partner Stevie, an equally tempered and sarcastic Val Kilmer, as they come upon a prisoner trapped in his cell. Despite some early cynical exchanges between Terence and Stevie on how long they think the water will rise to kill the prisoner, Terence makes a last minute decision to jump in and save the man from drowning. This act directs Terence’s life in a bittersweet direction where he his recognized for his valor in the line of duty, along with a promotion to Lieutenant, but is diagnosed with severe back problems leading to his drug addiction on cocaine to fight off the pain. Seeing Cage embody his character from slouching, leaning, slurring his words, and erupting in anger at his pain is a riveting experience that will make you question any judgment on this man’s acting abilities. As lieutenant he is put on a huge case, a massacre of an illegal immigrant family dealing in heroin. Such as noir goes, this extremely flawed detective is able to weave the twists and turns of the case believing to be vulnerable in his drug addicted state of mind. While there were some claims that this was a remake from an early 90s film with Harvey Keitel also entitled Bad Lieutenant, there are only similarities in the characters flaws but not in the construction of this morally complex murder mystery poetically set in New Orleans rather than New York.

Herzog is known for his parallels to animals, most famously juxtaposed in his masterpiece Aguirre, The Wrath of God, and continues with this theme insinuating Cage’s character to be amongst the serpents and reptiles that infest Louisiana. This blatantly biblical reference to sinful temptation is quite evident in the practiced vices in most of the characters, especially in Terence. An unforgettable moment is when the camera moves to an extremely subjective shot of an iguana on a coffee table hinted that only Terence in his drugged state can see those lizards makes for an interesting parallel between the animal and the man. One particular scene that embodies the titles appropriate description of bad is when Terence flags down a couple outside of a nightclub, accuses them of selling drugs, takes what they have on them as he makes the boyfriend watch him take advantage of the girl. This isn’t to say that consequence never catches up with Terence it’s just that justice, or lack there of, is a reference to how unfair the world can be and that morally flawed men sometimes get away with it. But the men Terence is fighting against are also morally corrupt, even more so than Terence, allowing this unique filmmaker to put the audience in the sympathies of someone using fire to fight fire. Even as Terence stops the flow of oxygen from an old woman just to obtain information doesn’t stop you from following this morally ambiguous detective.

The complexities of the characters as well as the ethical dilemmas the script takes on is handled quite well by director Werner Herzog who coerces a unique crew of actors to bring to life these ethically challenged characters. Eva Mendes tones down her depiction of a prostitute sympathetic and sweet while Jennifer Coolidge gives a surprising performance as Terence’s alcoholic stepmother. Notable appearances from Brad Dourif, Val Kilmer, and rapper Xzibit also make the film palpable with complicated characters in a morally grey world that is believable especially in light of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The film fully reflects on the evil nature of humans behaving in their self-interest but also adds an interesting layer of reflection on the sharing of vices and how our personal flaws are perpetuated by those who don’t see any wrong in them because they themselves contain the same flaws. As Terence is pushed to the limit of the moral precipice there are hints of a man that is flawed in nature but has the ability to recognize and change what has guided him to the edge.

Werner Herzog is a marvel in filmmaking and proves again and again that he can craft an artistic and substantial message project in a vastly subtle disguise of a typical Hollywood thriller. There is more depth and experimentation in the moral ambiguity of Herzog’s presented world than there ever usually is in a typical modern day film. His tightly woven script and succinct shots all accentuate Cage’s performance and his representation of this sinful, unfair, and morally corrupt world. Using the noir conventions and turning them in unexpected directions, Herzog makes Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans a rare and unexpected quality film that only adds to Herzog’s repertoire as a complex storyteller. This film is well worth seeing either for Herzog’s fine directing, Cage’s eccentric and surprising performance, or even for overall storytelling quality. Despite this film being in very little theaters it would be well worth your time to seek it out before it mysteriously disappears, which is the unfortunate outcome for most of the non-high budget films in the fall.

Grade: B+

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