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According to its director, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is not a remake of the infamous Harvey Keitel cult title Bad Lieutenant, nor is it a sequel. It does feature a character who is a completely drugged-out and gambling-addicted cop and who has no qualms forcing random strangers into performing sex acts through threat of arrest or death, but who has a heart of gold and will stop at nothing — legal or not — to solve a crime he deems immoral. No, these films are nothing alike, at least according to a screed delivered by the new film’s unlikely director, Werner Herzog (no, really), who takes the action to post-Katrina New Orleans and casts Nicolas Cage as Terence McDonagh, our ‘hero,’ as it were.
Remake? Dare to speak that word and Herzog calls you ‘pedantic,’ a ‘theoretician,’ and a ‘loser.’ (That’s what he actually says in a statement released to the press.)
So anyway, this remake of Bad Lieutenant follows much the same formula as the 1992 original, only with less male nudity. Here, Cage’s McDonagh throws the F-bomb around without hesitation, makes time with his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), gets into scrapes with his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer), and indulges in some actual police work, at least when he’s sober enough to do so.
The actual case in question is rather pedestrian: A drug kingpin (Xzibit) has murdered some illegal Somali immigrants who have been pushing dope on his turf, but his connections and threats have ensured the crime won’t be pinned on him. McDonagh investigates, stumbles closer to the truth, and ends up using any means necessary to see things to their conclusion.
You know you’re in trouble when rapper Xzibit is somehow the most interesting thing in the film. Cage hyperacts beyond even his usual hamminess here, and it doesn’t help that Herzog constantly shoves the camera in his face. There’s just no way to describe the impact of Cage barking and hollering, as his mug fills the whole screen.
But the movie is at its most bizarre when Herzog goes what I can only describe as completely native, providing iguana- and gator-eye viewpoints on the action (no, it’s exactly what you imagine it to be), and including one scene where a man’s ‘soul’ begins to breakdance after he’s been shot. Sure, this is a metaphor for the drug experience, we get that. But really, these scenes are there to remind us that this is a Werner Herzog film.
It’s not all a loss. Scenes like McDonagh overreacting at the pharmacy about why he has to wait so long for his prescription humanize the man and serve as genuine comedy. But they’re rare in a film that is otherwise so full of itself it begs for an enema. The movie drags harder than when Herzog tried to pull that boat over a mountain, and the last hour of the film repeats itself endlessly, going absolutely nowhere.
Herzog, whose independent films and documentaries have been so exceptional in recent years, shouldn’t be faulted for doing the occasional movie just for the paycheck. Man’s gotta eat, after all. What I do fault him for, however, is doing this movie.