Monday, August 22, 2011

Movie Review: Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call (2009)


Taking its cue from the 1992 Harvey Keitel vehicle of the same name (except the 'Port of Call' bit), this reboot stars Nicholas Cage and Eva Mendes and while maintaining the same sense of descent into madness, it's an altogether different film.

Lieutenant Terence McDonagh of the New Orleans Police Department is addicted to painkillers for a debilitating back condition and this invokes a rapid free-fall into a drug-fuelled frenzy of career-wrecking proportions while investigating a multiple homicide.

The Film

Set in the year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, McDonagh and partner Stevie Pruit (played by a very hirsute and plump Val Kilmer), are investigating the execution of a family of 5 in an apparent drug war turf battle.  Already addicted to Cocaine, McDonagh sees this opportunity to not only solve the crime, but to fuel his enormously rapacious appetite for drugs due to the nature of low-life scum he has to deal with.  Lurching dangerously from one vile criminal to the next, McDonagh is never far away from the opportunity to screw someone over.

It's an interesting premise for a film but there are some glaring faults and some not so obvious.  For one, the aftermath of the hurricane is merely a footnote and already New Orleans is shown to be back on it's feet.  This is a complete misnomer and as history tells us, it would take much longer than the six months suggested by the film for it to be in such a state of normality.  Indeed, the widespread flooding only serves as a plot device to explain McDonaghs painful back condition.

Cages depiction is all wild-eyed laughter, drug-fuelled sleep deprivation and manic behaviour.  Along with his gambling addiction, this probably rings most true to the original but where Keitel's Lieutenant was seeking some kind of absolution, the script here sees the lunacy as a means to an end.  The tart with a heart is played by Eva Mendes, too pretty and innocent to be a prosser but that's possibly the reason behind McDonaghs fascination with her, a counterpoint of light in the dark depraved world he normally inhabits.

No doubt dividing opinion once again, Nicholas Cage brings an atypical over-the-top performance, complete with bad hair syrup.  As McDonagh, he's cast well and director Herzog plays to his frenzied strengths.  Afflicted by a permanent hunch and sloping shoulder, the pain that brings on his madness is shared by the audience.  But, despite this pain and anguish, the script never allows him to strike a sympathetic chord due to his entirely unsympathetic behaviour.  Witness one extraordinarily distasteful scene where he forces a quite ordinary couple to smoke crack while he humps the girl.

There are some outstanding moments.  One where McDonagh loses it with the Grandmother of a vital witness makes for uncomfortable but riveting viewing none-the-less.  Cutting off the air supply to an elderly, oxygenated woman to garner some information before threatening her with a gun and calling her some pretty crude names was unpleasant but showed the depths McDonagh had plumbed to.

The rest of the cast brings up some pretty interesting actors with the always excellent Brad Dourif, the aforementioned Val Kilmer (he's huge, did he really once play a svelte and slinky Jim Morrison?), even Stifflers mom cropping up in a grungy, greasy-haired role.  But its Cage's film and all of them pale in comparison to his colourful histrionics, which is a shame because as an ensemble they should add up to more than the whole.

There are some bizarre Hunter S. Thompson-esque moments, no doubt reflecting McDonaghs increasingly erratic behaviour.  A preoccupation with lizards that's never fully explained, an utterly off-the-wall break-dancing soul as its owner dies under a hail of bullets and a crocodiles eye-view of a car-crash scene (literally).  Knowing Herzog's background, it should have come as no surprise to find such moments of eclecticity but at least they are rare shards of light relief, as head-scratching and puzzling as they are.

The movie appears to have suffered from some quite drastic editing to fit it in to a barely manageable 122 minutes.  The ending is resolved in an unsatisfactory two minute segment that left this viewer cold and given more leeway, one can't help feeling the director wouldn't have bowed to some kind of focus-group pressure.


For all its bluster, Bad Lieutenant blows too cold and all the elements don't add up to the sum of its parts.  Cage will either dazzle or annoy but either way, his performance is let down by a script that tries to be outlandish but falls short of the mark.  The film has said very little by the time the end credits are rolling and for such a raw subject, that is its biggest fault.

Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 18 for scenes of violence, sexual or otherwise and extremely crude offensive language.
Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Xzibit (the rapper).

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