The disorder and destruction in Post-Katrina New Orleans mirrors a similar state of being in the main character of Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call--New Orleans (2008). I found the title of this film awkward the first time I heard it. Why “Port of Call”? The film has nothing to do with shipping or sailing or travel. The title seems a contrivance, an effort to suggest something more artful and exotic than what the film really offers. It should offer more. I felt the entire film was a contrivance, and not in a positive sense. The first fictional film directed by Herzog in years (he has been making documentaries in the meantime), Bad Lieutenant is a loose remake of a 1992 film set in New York. Herzog has a great eye for settings—I think in particular of his 1992 documentary Lessons in Darkness on the first U. S. invasion of Iraq, and his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World. That perceptive eye is sometimes in evidence here, especially in views of the New Orleans skyline and of devastated streets left vacant by the post-Katrina floods.
But for the most part the film is a hyperbolic and excessive mess. Nicolas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a detective already inclined towards questionable behavior when we first meet him. In an early scene he and his partner (Val Kilmer) are taunting a prisoner in a city jail cell about to be submerged by rising flood waters from the hurricane. They laugh at the prisoner, a young Hispanic man, who is terrified. Finally Cage jumps in the water to release him from the cell, but he injures his back and is left permanently in pain. He is promoted and honored for his heroism, and a year later he is seeking relief from his pain through various forms of legal and illegal drug use, and his life seems a darkening shambles. He’s faced with gambling debts (and mobsters who threaten him for failure to pay what he owes), he loses his temper with two citizens whose relatives are influential with the police captain, he pressures a football player to throw a game he has bet on, he blackmails arrest victims for sex, he’s suspended from duty, he promises to fix speeding tickets, he makes a deal with a local drug lord (Big Fate, played by Xzibit) in hopes of making enough money to pay his debts, the list could go on.
McDonagh’s difficulties finally reach the point where it seems impossible to conceive that he will find a way out. I found myself overcome with suspense as to when and how he would meet his fate. Amazingly, he doesn’t.
The one possibly redeeming trait in McDonagh’s character is his interest in solving the murder of five Senegalese illegal immigrants. Children are among the dead. McDonagh is horrified and enraged at the crime. But it’s difficult to sort out his desire to solve the crime with his numerous small and major acts of corruption. He does solve the murders and brings about the arrest of the murderers. His success could be the result of crafty thinking and planning, or it could simply be the result of good luck.
Some scenes in this film make no sense. In one McDonagh hallucinates and listens in hilarity as various lizards, including an iguana, sing. The iguana shows up in another scene. McDonagh’s colleagues never figure out that he is addicted to drugs, many of which he is stealing from the police stock room. He often looks drugged out, and his behavior is often very unusual. (Maybe they do know and don’t care—maybe that is Herzog’s point—it’s OK for the white detective to do drugs, just not the blacks and Hispanics and the young). McDonagh’s father, struggling with alcoholism, lives with his drunken younger wife in what appears to be a broken down Southern mansion—exactly how does he manage to afford living there? Near the end of the film, McDonagh is sitting with Big Fate when the mobster and two henchman show up to demand that he pay his gambling debt. Big Fate and his henchmen (everyone in this film has henchmen) shoot the mobsters to death. In a scene just a few moments later, McDonagh leads his police colleagues in a raid on Big Fate’s home—he is arrested. Yet the drug lord never reveals that McDonagh had conspired with him. Are we to believe that McDonagh’s plotting was all the result of a conscious plan? Does Big Fate never give a second thought to why this white detective wants to help him sell drugs and make money? McDonagh does convince Big Fate to smoke crack from his pipe—this allows detectives to use DNA on the pipe to connect him with the murders—a solution that in the context of everything else in the film seems too gratuitous and forced.
In the penultimate scene, all McDonagh’s problems have vanished. He’s given another commendation and promotion by the police department. He has married the woman he loves, who is pregnant and sober (she was a drug addict prostitute throughout most of the film), and they live in a handsome New Orleans home. Everything is wonderful. (I was reminded of the final scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet). And in the closing scene we see that, as much as McDonagh has turned his life around, he is still the same corrupt lieutenant as in the beginning.
One of Herzog’s points in this film is to show that the American legal system, the American system of values and its commitment to democratic ideals, the entire concept of the American Dream (which McDonagh has incredibly attained at the end of the film) are hollow and corrupt. The devastated New Orleans landscape, especially the poverty-stricken areas whose inhabitants suffered horribly during Katrina and its aftermath, is his embodiment of the discrimination and corruption that he sees underlying the system. The oppressed and powerless—African Americans, Hispanics, the young—are victimized by those in power. Herzog has frequently shown his disdain for America in his films. It is entirely appropriate for him to dramatize and illustrate his opinions. But one wishes he could have done so in a better film.
Many reviewers of this film liked it more than I did. Did they pay too much deference to Herzog? Perhaps they were reacting to the performance by Cage. His McDonagh is wild and remarkable, reckless and self-destructive. He held my attention.