Nicolas Cage, in 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans'

Dir. Werner Herzog
(2009, R, 121 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a film I like for no other reason than it’s interesting. It’s a jumbled mess of tragedy, absurdity, and surrealism. There may be a satire buried in there somewhere, but what could it be satirizing? The police? New Orleans? Addiction? Everything and everyone? The story meanders through the drug-addled misadventures of its title character, and at first there is a feeling of restlessness as we wonder where on Earth it’s going and why and how, but by midpoint I stopped wondering and started marveling at the gonzo originality of it. I think we’re meant to take it as comedy. Is it a good film? Heck if I know. But its strangeness casts a spell.

Nicolas Cage is mesmerizing — mostly in a good way — as Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, who injures his back rescuing a prisoner from flood waters caused by Hurricane Katrina, leaving him with chronic pain he treats (legally) with Vicodin and (illegally) with everything else. He steals what he can get from evidence rooms and crime scenes: cocaine, heroin, black market pharmaceuticals. Cage’s performance goes to maniacal extremes to show a man unrestrained by morality or professionalism. He thinks only half a step ahead: his next hit, his next score, his next scheme to get out from under whatever new hole he’s dug himself into. He lies and improvises, shifts abruptly between hunched, zombie-like trances (from marijuana and sensation-numbing opiates) and wild-eyed hysteria (from the cocaine), between dutiful police work and abject corruption. There’s no pinning him down from scene to scene, and Cage commits to each aspect of character with an anarchic fervor that leaves nothing in the tank. This is bold, reckless, all-or-nothing acting.

The story involves the investigation into the murder of a Senegalese family, but that’s not the plot so much as one in a series of incidents. When desperate for money, he reaches out to a local drug lord known as Big Fate (Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner), who asks him if he ever cared about the murder case. McDonagh answers with a great line: “Look at me. Now look at you. I never did.” Does he mean it? At the time, I think so. Before or after, maybe not. He’s a man of moral turpitude but a cop nevertheless. For him, justice may be a force of habit, one of his many.

The film is directed by Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World), who sets his film in an alternate world of grotesque exaggeration; we can’t help but laugh at scenes like a non-sequitur lizard point-of-view shot, or a confrontation with a prostitute’s absurdly mellow john. A followup of sorts to Abel Ferrara’s controversial 1992 film Bad Lieutenant — Herzog claimed never to have seen it — Port of Call’s audacity is at first baffling but finally mesmerizing. I stopped trying to understand it and just absorbed it. The moral of the story? What moral? A man does drugs, goes to work; sometimes he gets lucky, sometimes very unlucky. Such is life.