Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: William Finkelstein
Producers: Stephen Belafonte, Nicolas Cage, Randall Emmett, Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky, Edward R. Pressman, John Thompson
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, Xzibit, Jennifer Coolidge, Tom Bower
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 122 min
First a bit of context: I came to Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans without having seen, or ever wanting to see, Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Both the advertising and reviews of the original labelled it grim, pretentious and unrelentingly serious. That may be unfair, but until someone convinces me otherwise it will remain unwatched.
So why doesn’t all that apply to this sequel/remake/companion piece? The short answer is Snake Eyes. I like the manic excesses of Brian DePalma’s corrupt cop thriller, not least Nicolas Cage’s rabid star turn. Bad Lieutenant had the potential for Cage to do something similar, under the watch of another, differently crazy director. He did not disappoint.
In what will now be called ‘Snake Eyes 2’, Cage plays Trevor, a newly promoted lieutenant in the New Orleans police trying to solve the drug-related murders of a family of illegal immigrants. We quickly learn Trevor is a good and moral officer, committed to his job. Trevor’s only problem is his back. He’s got a condition and it hurts. His doctor has proscribed drugs, but they aren’t enough, and he’s self-medicating using whatever confiscated substances he can swipe from the evidence room. Matters aren’t helped by Trevor’s loving girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendez), a prostitute with similar narcotic dependencies.
Trevor is not bad as in evil, but bad as in rotting. Particularly in the first half, much of the film’s tension comes from uncertainty whether he will solve his case before the rot reaches his core. Later the tension breaks with a series of fairly spectacular confrontations, most of which resolve is pleasantly unexpected ways. The version of post-Katrina New Orleans presented is also in an advanced state of decay, so that the need for renewal becomes all pervasive.
Inside this framework there is plenty of space for Cage and Werner Herzog to have fun. Cage alternates between cackling, sudden motion and dead-eyed, addled stupors. He conveys Trevor’s pain by twisting himself into a lopsided hunch, accentuated by over-sized suits that hang from his frame. It’s hard to imagine much of his dialogue was written in advance; there’s an astonishing scene where Trevor tells Frankie about his childhood love of metal detection where Mendez clearly cannot believe what she’s hearing.
Much of the film is shot with hand held cameras in a way that occasionally feels like cheap late-1990s television. Into this bargain-basement aesthetic, Herzog throws in some interesting lighting, a few bits of video, and numerous shots juxtaposing people with animals. Animals also feature prominently when Trevor begins to hallucinate. It would be unfair to spoil the details, beyond reporting a scene where Trevor insists an already dead thug is shot again because, “His soul is still dancing.”
Around the star turns of Herzog and Cage, there’s still space for some memorable bit players (Look! There’s Val Kilmer!) and an excellent performance from Mendez in a role that otherwise would be little more than cliché. Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner is fine as a drug dealer, but it’s like he’s in another, more conventional movie.
Review by Jim Whalley