Big Shot: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

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Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is submerged from the start. Sloshing around in a flooding police station, Sergeant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) and his lacky partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) ransack a locker room, pocketing dirty pictures of a colleagues wife, snickering maliciously. Their joking isn’t imbued with puerile innocence, it comes weighted with the promises of threats to come.

From this first scene, any semblance of a buddy cop procedural veers sharply from the genre’s familiar structure very quickly. After cruelly taunting a drowning perp trapped in his cell, McDonagh down and dives into the snake-filled murk of Hurricane Katrina’s wake. This showcase of heroism in the disaster’s aftermath earns him a  promotion to Lieutenant and triggers a downward spiral. His heroics leave him with a bad back, and as a result, an addiction to any kind of drug he can find, anything to kill the pain. His first assignment as lieutenant is brutal: an entire immigrant family slaughtered over a drug territory dispute. But the investigation quickly takes a back seat to the Lieutenant’s bad behavior. Not only do they identify the culprit pretty quickly, his bad behavior is actually much more interesting.

Cage as McDonagh is completely arresting, like a car crash. His sloppy physicality is the only constant. The rest – his accent, his energy levels are completely unreliable. This volatility is admittedly a known entity with Cage, spanning career highs and lows. In this case, however, he has a story that supports his choices, and a director that has experience and relishes his a deliberately curated feral style. All that time and terror Herzog put into wrangling Klaus Kinski surely classifies Cage as a pussycat.  While this performance may not come together to create a wholly developed character, that really isn’t the point.

But what is the point? As McDonagh spirals into a self-destructive nightmare, his behavior becomes as erratic as Cage’s performance. When his hookup to the evidence room and all the confiscated narcotics stored there dries up (oh hai Michael Shannon), he’s desperate for a fix. The badge comes in handy when he’s intimidating club kids or his hooker girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes)’s Johns, traumatizing them and stealing their dope. But he’s never sated. More than anything else, malignancy, as a way to be, is his real addiction. Like other addictions, it comes with a high, followed by relief.

In the behind-the-scenes featurette, Herzog speaks of the “bliss of evil” that pervades the film and what remains when it’s over: a swampy, sticky sludge. Evil moves in undetectable currents. On the surface, the story wanders somewhat aimlessly with the investigation that drives the plot hovering in the periphery. Most of the time we are on long, winding detours through the bayous of McDonagh’s twisted existence.

This is McDonagh’s Inferno, but no one else really cares about all the terrible shit going down either.  Remember Stevie, his old partner? It turns out, he has a penchant for racially charged violence against suspected criminals, Frankie is a pretty lazily characterized drug whore, and even his father, an ex-cop who is glorified throughout as the perfect picture of the old guard, is struggling to rid himself of past demons and is insanely selfish at his best. Everyone McDonagh shakes down to score drugs off of are ultimately guilty of the crimes he accuses them of, wriggling like worms to avoid the consequences of their demonic natures.

In the few moments when terrible things aren’t happening, McDonagh is either delivering cringe-inducing sentimental horseshit or he is hallucinating reptiles. The latter is more productive, great moments of Herzogian jungle allegory and absolutely compelling, even if they serve no function. . Like a distracted version of Collateral, in the end the message (if there is one) becomes muddied. After all his bad behavior, it looks like he may hit bottom and make it out unscathed. Maybe two wrongs don’t make a right, but maybe two thousand might. Or maybe the snake just ate it’s own tail.