Where the characters of Bad Lieutenant medicated themselves through their days with drink and drugs because they wished to do so, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans changes tactics somewhat. Rather than devolving into drugs because the choice is there for them, the terror underlining this Werner Herzog piece is the lack of choice Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) has with his addictions. He is the honourable veteran of the streets, one who has been commended for his creativity and command of the police force. It is this praise that brings him injuries, risks and close encounters with the scythe. Herzog presents that frequently throughout this entertaining take on the Abel Ferrara original.
A harsh and cool bit of detective work that pairs Cage and Val Kilmer brings about a supremely engaging opening. They are sadistic creatures that would rather let a man drown than get their suits wet. Corruption reigns supreme, but there is still integrity to their work that sees them extend the long arm of the law. They are to do the right thing whether they wish to or not. His act of humanity leaves him brittle, broken and addicted to painkillers. Cage presents that with defined respect. It is his best performance in recent memory, pushing the limit of his abilities, but never taking them through those defined “Cageisms” that would feature in up-to-date features like Willy’s Wonderland or Mandy. Here, he still has some dependability as an artist, rather than as a caricature, and he makes the most of the faith Herzog has in him.
That faith is rewarded well. Not only is Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans a stronger feature than the Ferrara outing, but it is richer in detail and darker in subtext. How it is possible to craft a darker film than what Ferrara is capable of is truly disturbing, but it is a credit to the work of Herzog that he makes such a leap here. Much of it comes down to the control Cage has over the set pieces that define his character. His outrage at a pharmacist on the phone presents him the ability to utilise the rage he became known for but also reigns it in as a justification for his character. His addiction is in full control of his job and his life, he flies off the handle in the hopes of receiving his pills. Herzog knows how to push the buttons of his leading man, so well in fact, that he drags an incredible experience out of not just Cage, but Kilmer and Eva Mendes also.
Herzog has a flexibility to his craft that offers so many different styles and variations of what he wishes to say and when. With his ability and desire to create these varied stories, there is the understanding that not all of them will work. Every director has a dud, but for Herzog, this is perhaps the finest work of his career. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans digs deep into the disruptive destruction of an addict, whose rage holds such control over him. That Cage rage is controlled. It gives him the ability and desire to tell the story of an addict cop with no control for what he does, where he goes, or why he creates problems for himself. That is the beauty of this bad lieutenant, though.