“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” is not a sequel to the brutal 1992 Abel Ferrara motion picture. In fact, there’s no viable reason to label the film a “Bad Lieutenant” adventure at all. “Port of Call,” while duly twisted and tormented, just might confuse cult film fanatics lining up for a second helping. Instead of advancing Ferrara’s story in some trivial way, “Port of Call” cooks up an entirely fresh adventure of behavioral disease, turning the spotlight on Nicolas Cage and his boundless capability to personify the melting of a man’s soul.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a heroic act has left Lieutenant Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) with severe back pain, requiring a steady stream of prescription drugs to temper. When his attention turns to further chemical experimentation, McDonagh’s urges spin him into a vicious drug addict, a compulsive gambler, and all-purpose dirty cop. When a brutal murder is discovered, the local police force hits the streets to locate the killer, while McDonagh attempts to stay one step ahead of the criminals and the cops, seeking to protect his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), eager to secure as much cocaine as possible to keep his maladies at bay.
Ferrara’s vision for “Bad Lieutenant” was a tenacious, open sore tribute to the blackest areas of the psyche, demanding star Harvey Keitel give his all in a spectacular tour de force performance that left the picture exhausted and bloodied. For this update, director Werner Herzog is called into duty, looking to eliminate Ferrara’s teeth grinding and Catholicism obsession by introducing the material to an entirely new atmosphere beyond the knowing streets of New York. “Port of Call” enters New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, inserting McDonagh’s mania into the cancerous center of a decaying city, where lawlessness has become a necessary evil. Even for the cops.
Encapsulating New Orleans disorder through the perspective of a jittery, growling madman, Herzog exploits his locations superbly, fabricating an intimidating, yet entirely striking backdrop to McDonagh’s sociopathic tunnel vision. We watch as the character winds his way through palaces and ruins, juggling the demands of his job with the intensity of his volcanic addiction drilling into his wounded back. “Port of Call” shares a definite streetwise authenticity with its cinematic cousin, drinking in the frightening inner-city mood wherever it can.
Herzog being Herzog, there’s a faint whiff of mischief in the air. McDonagh’s journey is one of heavy medication, leading to a series of hallucinations, typically involving the appearance of iguanas, playing both to Herzog’s love of nature and his fondness for surrealism. Cage is game for everything the director sends his way, contributing a lurching, accent-wavering performance that’s about as toys in the attic as Cage is capable of belching. While it takes some time for McDonagh to hit bottom, once Cage feels the bedrock, he’s off like a demon, snarling, grimacing, and Mutley-cackling his way through pure dementia. The performance has darkly comic roots, but I was more in tune with Cage’s investigative ferocity than his yippy, crack-flavored ramblings; the film has shocking pull as a crime story, with a screenplay that eventually runs out of steam, but tenders a decent attempt at structure for this tale of anarchic psychological disorder.
Perhaps this is where I separate from Herzog, who amplifies the oddity in the film’s second half to make a more conventionally eccentric impression. The acceleration to lunacy pulls the story off course, encouraging Cage to pop a few veins as McDonagh dissolves, forcing the material into iffy irony and magical circumstances to make a bootleg turn into a suitable ending. “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” is set ablaze early enough to accurately maneuver through patches of the profane and the ghastly, but Herzog grows impatient. Pushing the film to the outer limits only burns off the potential of the piece and exhausts Cage past any point of true entertainment value. Considering how much manic behavior is expended in this picture, the film is a good 20 minutes too long. With Nicolas Cage running around wired on crack, the character’s head pulled inside out, those precious 20 minutes means the difference between a superb feature film and one that’s barely tolerable by the finish line.