Of all the remakes to have been announced recently, Bad Lieutenant was perhaps the most galling. After all, Abel Ferrara’s 1992 original remains such a shocking film, with a ferocious, uninhibited performance by Harvey Keitel. How could anything compete?
The good news then, is that Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans isn’t as bad as you may have feared. In fact, it’s actually very good. Because while it takes certain elements from the original – an unhinged cop, a case to solve, a chance of redemption – Port Of Call isn’t trying to outdo or match the intensity of Ferrara and Keitel’s effort. Interestingly, director Werner Herzog has made a film closer to a surreal comedy than the original, and Cage a character so grandiose and idiosyncratic that it’s a memorable screen creation worthy of sitting alongside Keitel’s.
Indeed, so good is Cage that at times Port Of Call seems to exist merely as a showcase for the actor to unleash a performance that seems to have been bottled up inside him after years of autopilot in films such as Ghost Rider and Bangkok Dangerous. And that’s no bad thing. But Herzog has his own bag of tricks he wants to play with as well (just wait for those iguanas), making this a mainstream film quite unlike most other mainstream films we’re likely to see this year.
Starting out in the immediate aftermath of post-Katrina New Orleans, we first see Cage’s Terence McDonagh as a rather honourable cop. Heading back into a flooded police station to retrieve incriminating photos of another cop for his own means (so not that honourable, but still), he chooses to save a prisoner still locked away in his cell as the water level rises. But the chronic back pain he gets as a result sees McDonagh dependent on pain-killing drugs to make it through each day. Cut to six months later and he’s taking hits of cocaine in-between arrests, stealing from the station’s evidence locker and having sex with female perps.
There’s nothing here as shocking as Keitel’s masturbation scene from the original, but that’s mostly by design. This is another Herzog film about one man’s obsession. Here it seems that just making it through another day is that which drives McDonagh. Or creating some semblance of the typical happy family; his strung out prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), his drunken father and stepmother (a barely recognisable Jennifer Coolidge), and a teenage witness to a crime that he takes into his care, only to lose soon after.
There’s a perfunctory plot at work here, a shooting which McDonagh, at turns, seems infatuated with solving and then ready to throw away in order to secure his next hit. It’s Cage’s performance, though, that gives Port Of Call so much of its energy.
Hunched over, stiff and often looking horrific, he’s like a Boris Karloff creation, a lumbering monster yet one you can’t help but be mesmerised by. Just sitting down in a chair becomes a wildly over-the-top, exaggerated performance.
Next to Cage the rest of the cast barely get a look in. Val Kilmer turns up in a few scenes in the first half hour, then disappears for much of the film until a comically over-played finale that lays on happy ending after happy ending with gleeful abandon.
This is Cage’s show, and Herzog builds everything round him; a trippy iguana scene played out to the sounds of Johnny Adams’ Release Me with a bemused and grinning Cage in the background being the highlight; a crazed interrogation within an old people’s home a close second.
“I have my bad days,” admits Cage towards the end of the film. Next to Keitel’s they’re relatively mild, but in return they’re far more enjoyable to watch. And while Herzog hasn’t created a film with the substance and visceral power of Ferrara’s, he’s done something perhaps more impressive – he’s made Nicholas Cage exciting again.