By J. Hoberman
The joke's on someone in Werner Herzog's awkwardly titled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Possibly Abel Ferrara who, exploding in fury when he learned that the German conquistador was planning to remake his 1992 career movie, opined that Herzog and his accomplices (among them, an original Bad Lieutenant producer) "should die in hell." Spoken like the BL himself.
"I have no idea who Abel Ferrara is," Herzog told Defamer, denying knowledge of the most sordid of New York policiers, rated NC-17 for Harvey Keitel's uninhibited performance as the city's skeeviest lapsed-Catholic junkie cop—and replete with rumors of drug abuse on set. Herzog's version, with Nicolas Cage in the title role, ups the hysteria quotient, but siphons off the moral anguish. Keitel played a tormented soul, searching for redemption in godless Gotham; Cage's affliction is an act of God. He's a Katrina casualty who, having dived into the muck to free a prisoner from a flooded holding cell, suffers from permanent back pain—hence his out-of-control dependence on Vicodin, crack, smack, and whatever else he can filch from the department property room.
Instead of plumbing the depths of spiritual degradation, Herzog's movie is—largely due to Cage's performance—almost fun. Shoulders hunched nearly to his ears, face contorted in a perpetual glower, the star appears to be channeling Frank Langella's Nixon. Is this shambolic maniac Herzog's idea of an American hero? As such, he is provided with a suitably gruesome case (the execution-style murder of a Senegalese illegal, presumably ordered by a neighborhood drug boss) and an ample supply of cop-movie clichés.
A genre checklist would have to include the lieutenant's inamorata (a beautiful, if dim, coke-snorting call girl, played with infinite equanimity by Eva Mendes), as well as a showboat opportunity to articulate populist rage (Cage seizing his Vicodin prescription from the rude clerk in an all-night drug store). He is also given license to abuse elderly ladies and shake down club kids for drugs. And, in a fine comic touch, the cop discovers that, instead of crack, he's been smoking heroin (uh-oh).
No shortage of slapstick here. Whether it's the spectacle of Cage hacking through the thicket of the lower Ninth Ward, losing his bets—as well as a key witness—in a Biloxi casino, or hallucinating an iguana who sings like Tom Jones, the movie's madcap modus operandi can hardly be ignored. ("Iguanas are so stupid and bizarre—I just love them," Herzog told the press at Venice when asked about these interludes. "They are the best moments in the film." His human stars could only smile.)
Essentially a documentarian, Herzog has always been as concerned with location as with character; Port of Call is as much about the sorry state of New Orleans as it is about that of the protagonist's mental health. Although the filmmaker might have made more of it, the city is a memorable presence—a smashed terrarium, half-empty, partially ruined, at once sun-blasted and submerged in swamp water and sweat. No wonder the iguanas are at home.
Davy Crockett would be as well. Port of Call aspires to the frontier tall tale—it never loses its naïve enthusiasm for America's rough and ready, coonskin antics, enlivened by Sonny Terry harmonica whoops, the ruminatin' ethno-funk of a Les Blank folkumentary, and free-floating jive. Cage's cop amazes one hardened dope dealer by displaying his "lucky crack pipe" just as he earlier confounded a sullen collar with his stoned babble. "Are you trippin', man?" the prisoner barks. "You on that shit?" He might as well have been asking the director.