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Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

30/12/2009

Plot:

Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) is a crooked cop. When a family of five illegal immigrants from Africa are murdered he must track down the killer while keeping his complicated personal life from interfering with the case.

Who this movie is for:

Fans of Werner Herzog will definitely enjoy the director’s unique take on a cliched genre. I imagine that anyone who likes the maniacal Nicolas Cage character appearing in so many of his other movies,  Snake Eyes for example, will also enjoy BL:POCNO. Since the movie is more about Cage’s character than anything else I imagine that certain fans of American Psycho might also find parallel elements to enjoy.

Who this movie is not for:

If you like police procedurals, you probably will not like BL:POCNO. Like I said above, this movie is more about Cage’s character than his job as a cop, effectively pushing the murder mystery/crooked cop story into the background.  If you liked The Departed because it made you feel a little bit like a detective, then you probably will be frustrated with BL:POCNO’s lack of interest in details. Since the movie takes an indifferent stance on the titular lieutenant’s badness, those hoping for a clear redemption or condemnation of Cage’s character will most certainly be dissatisfied.

A Closer look:

You might characterize a Werner Herzog movie as having a commonality with the music of Lee “Scratch” Perry in the following way. There is a moment in many of Perry’s songs as well as Herzog’s movies, a moment when you know you’ve experienced something new. In Perry’s music maybe you just don’t recognize the instrument, maybe you are jolted by an over synthesized sound or maybe you’re left wondering for days whether or not you liked what you heard. These moments especially stick out in Perry role as a producer. For example, take the Lee Perry produced Susan Cadogan cover of the song Fever, better known as being performed by Peggy Lee, Elvis Presley, etc.  The Perry/Cadogan version is characterized first and foremost by Cadogan’s voice which is so much louder than everything else, layered in such a way that it oscillates in and out of sync with itself. As covers these are songs have been previously made popular by a different artist and part of Perry’s role is to define his version among the others. But, for Perry it’s not enough to rely on Cadogan’s performance, the production itself must also be unique.

Perry’s brand of novelty can also be found in BL:POCNO which itself is like a cover of a well known song. Never mind that it is also a remake, in a larger sense, it is a movie based in the conventions of a well established genre: the crooked cop police procedural. Like Perry, Herzog knows his territory and is intent on making something new. For example: there are two scenes when Herzog trades his camera in for a digital hand held.  Herzog spends about a minute and a half of screen time filming close ups of bayou reptilian denizens with the characters forming a kind of backdrop. Then there is the seemingly unrelated side story about a pirate spoon lost in childhood. And finally, without ruining the conclusion of the plot, there is a moment at the end when three characters appear in front of the camera, one after another, all offering summaries of off-screen events essential to the plot to such a degree that at first you might think Herzog just got lazy filming and invited Puck on the set to wrap things up. However, it is because of these and other Lee “Scrach” Perry moments that BL:POCNO succeeds in becoming more than generic. At best, these moments act like a contrast element, highlighting this particular entry into the genre among others. At worst, the Lee “Scratch” Perry moments are nothing more random experimentation by Herzog intended to create an outré moment for the viewer. In this case, Cage’s character and Herzog seem to be too caught up on being weird and forget to do something with it.

And still, to me BL:POCNO is, on a deeper level, a movie about expectations. This comes across both in Herzog’s direction and Cage’s character, Terrence McDonagh. In the first scene of the movie, we see McDonagh fulfilling every prerequisite necessary to be labeled a bad cop. Only at the end of the scene he chooses to act contrary to this expectation by doing something good. His action does not come across as an effort to seek redemption, but perhaps as an expression of  his desire to avoid stereotype. This moment is mirrored at the end of the movie when McDonagh and the movie have reached a satisfactory ending point, but instead they go on, again as if in defiance of expectation. In this sense Cage’s character and the movie itself seem to be aware of the conventions that define them.  At times, both movie and character are content playing their role, fulfilling the audiences expectations. But then, at a certain point near the end of the movie, it appears that McDonagh has come to see himself as kind of a character in the scripted drama that is his life. So when McDonagh, in a state of drug induced, metafictional self-awareness, is confronted by the above mentioned three characters, the audience gets the sense that he too is weirded out by the sudden conclusion of so many loose ends. Even the way the characters are filmed in this later scene, in almost comical contrast to the more somber mood of the rest of the movie, suggests that the movie itself is freaked out by its own predictability.

All the elements of a typical police procedural are present in Herzog’s movie to the extent that you could probably guess where the movie goes having only seen the set up. What keeps BL:POCNO interesting are the ‘Lee “Scratch” Perry’ moments. Like the single line of a poem that breaks otherwise perfect iambic pentameter, Herzog’s direction and Cage’s performance take advantage of the audience’s understanding of convention to suggest more than is shown on screen. By experimenting with the expectations of the police procedural, Herzog creates a kind of stage for the main attraction, the central character: Terrence McDonagh.

Alternate headlines:

Positive review: I love Bad Lieutenant, it’s so bad.

Negative review: Bad Lieutenant: Port-o-potty

About the Movie:

Title: Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendez, Val Kilmer, Xzibit, Fairuza Balk
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Written by: William Finkelstein
Released in 2009 by First Look Studios
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