Karma Police

Werner Herzog once ate a shoe on camera after losing a bet.

Nicolas Cage starred in Con Air…and 8MM…and Ghost Rider…and not one, but two National Treasure films. The list of travesties could go on and on…though I jest the National Treasure films; they are good family fun even though they are so sloppily put together.

Clearly both men are insane.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (henceforth referred to as BLt: PoCNO) is a film to watch not just for the decent into bizarro world offered up by a collaboration between German Auteur Herzog and Hollywood Movie Star Cage, it’s a film to savor for all of its layers of interesting elements. 

If you think that Nicolas Cage’s inexplicable role as ACTION STAR! is a perverse manifestation of his Id, and it is his Ego that has treated us to such amazing performances in movies like Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation, then BLt: PoCNO is the film for you.  His Ego is boldly on display here as Lt. Terence McDonagh, and his performance is magnificent.

Meanwhile, Herzog has been better known of late for his documentary work in films like Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World. But let’s not forget that sandwiched between those films was a dramatic reworking of his previous documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly that resulted in the superb POW tale Rescue Dawn. Here, Herzog reworks a bit of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film Bad Lieutenant. However, the first thing to notice about Herzog’s film is that in the credits the full title is THE Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. With the simplicity of the added “the” the director makes it clear this is not a remake or homage, but a reworking of the same theme…another look at the good cop gone bad.

One of the most interesting aspects is how well toned the film is to the genre conventions of the dirty cop opus. Herzog lays in some surrealism in a few masterfully done hallucination scenes, but it is wonderfully understated and never dives into the same realms of insanity something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas inhabited. There’s always the case that Cage’s Terence McDonagh is working on that brings him back into reality where a bust, a shake-down, a hit or a crash into his personal life is waiting around every corner. There’s one scene early on where Terence is busting a young couple leaving a club that goes too far, but in a way it shows how desensitized we have become to the graphic details of these stories where the cops are just as rotten as the criminals. Herzog wisely never wallows in the inherent despair of this scenario.

The New Orleans setting is a perfect mirror for Terence McDonagh. Like him, the city was corrupt, suffered a terrible blow (Hurricane Katrina for the city or a back injury for Terence), and then became even more corrupt. Yet all along the way, Terence tried to do the right thing. It’s just that for every right thing he did, there were a dozen bad things he had to do as well. Herzog cleverly plays with the idea of karma. For someone like Terence, you would think karma would be a bitch (as the old adage goes) but there’s a reason Herzog’s camera lingers on an engraving above a courthouse that reads, “This is a government not of man, but of law.” And he seems to imply that the law of karma is just. The good things Terence does either to atone or because deep down he’s really not so bad (it’s the drugs, man) outweigh his heinous deeds. The most surprising thing about the film is its underlying message that even in the most willfully corrupt of situations the universe will serve up not just hope but justice. However, just when you think everything is tidying up a little too neatly, Herzog delivers an ambiguous ending that shows there is always hope for redemption or a better life, but sometimes some people never change.

With a great music score from Mark Isham, an excellent supporting cast (including comedienne Jennifer Coolidge in a rare dramatic turn and Eva Mendes — a gorgeous actress tailor made for these “girlfriend” roles), and a respect for the conventions of the genre while simultaneously turning that genre on its head, BLt: PoCNO is a good movie about a bad cop. Herzog’s direction and Cage’s performance give the discerning cinephile much to think about…and that is something that should always be celebrated.

Written by David H. Schleicher


SIDE NOTE: I saw the film at the Ritz at the Bourse in Philly on a lazy Monday afternoon off from work. (Aren’t those the best kinds of Mondays?) I’ve been a frequent patron to the Ritz Five and Ritz East for years, but this was my first time seeing something at the Bourse where escalators take you underground to the nicely appointed screening rooms. Of the three art-house staples in the city (all located within a few blocks of each other), the Ritz at the Bourse might be the nicest. Check out the full lineup at the Ritz Theaters at their website.