Sub-Cult 2.0 #2 Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
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Before he became the Mayor of Crazy Town, a place with many, many castles in foreclosure but very little in the way of common sense or solid judgment, Nicolas Cage was at once an Academy-Award winning Actor of Distinction and a massive box office star thanks to a string of iconic blockbusters like The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off and National Treasure.
Cage was respected. He was admired. He was obscenely wealthy and nobly devoted to spending his immense fortune on the stupidest possible shit. He was considered eccentric, sure, but not to a career-sabotaging degree. The man ate an actual cockroach in Vampire’s Kiss, after all, but at least it was for Art. He needed to pass that threshold to get to a place in his mind only reachable through the consumption of a repulsive insect.
I’ve been watching a lot of Teen Titans Go! with my son (Nicolas Cage finally gets to play Superman in the well-received feature film spin off, which I regrettably have not seen yet) and to put things in Starfire terms, in Vampire’s Kiss, Nicolas Cage brought The Crazy in levels that still reverberate over the pop culture landscape. The same is true of other masterpieces of Peak Cage Craziness, like Face/Off andThe Wicker Man and the subject of today’s Sub Cult 2.0 entry, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Every element of the demented 2009 dark comedy promises a cult classic for the ages. It’s sort of, kind of, a remake/reboot/re-imagining of Abel Ferrara’s gritty 1992 drama about a sex, drug and gambling addicted Catholic cop torn between sin and salvation except that director Werner Herzog claims that when he took on the project he had never seen the film and did not know who Ferrara was.
In response, Ferrara said, he hoped that the filmmakers of the bold new addition to the Bad Lieutenant franchise would “die in Hell”, adding that he hoped that they were all on a streetcar that exploded, presumably sending them all to the very bowels of the underworld. I don’t think he meant that in a positive way.
Nicolas Cage. Werner Herzog. A screenplay by the co-creator of Cop Rock. A bizarro world riff on a 1990s independent classic. New Orleans, post-Katrina, which feels at once like the most American place on Earth and a universe onto itself, Planet New Orleans, where everything is hotter and sweatier and sexier and more corrupt down to a biological level. A cast so ridiculously stacked with oddball, singular talent that the movie begins to feel like the casting equivalent of a crazy clown car, with one incredible character actor popping up after another. Val Kilmer! Vondie Curtis Hall! Fairuza Balk! Jennifer Coolidge! Xzibit, who is as magnetic here as he was leaden in the second X-Files movie! Michael Shannon! Brad Dourif!
It’s a combination that promises cult greatness. Herzog and his collaborators delivered, even as the eccentric Teutonic auteur campaigned to have the movie released without Bad Lieutenant in its title. Perhaps he was worried that producer Edward R. Pressman, who also worked on Ferrara’s film, was going to follow it with a whole slew of opportunistic, location-specific re-boots, including Bad Lieutenant: Cracked Out in Chicago, Bad Lieutenant: Corrupt in Cozumel and, of course, Bad Lieutenant: Deranged in Disney World, where the corrupt lead character does things to the poor woman playing Minnie Mouse that no one should see, not just impressionable children.
Alas, while trash movie fans and Cage fanatics couldn't wait to see all the exciting, sexy adventures Cage was sure to have against this colorful backdrop, mainstream audiences were less intrigued and despite its ultra-commercial connection to the billion-dollar grossing Bad Lieutenant, the film was not a big hit and we were subsequently spared David Morse in Bad Lieutenant: Scary in Saskatchewan and the like.
In one of the most exquisitely Nicolas Cage performances of his career, the King of Bad Movies lends his pummeling, brutal, almost feral intensity to the juicy role of Terence McDonagh, a second generation cop and a second generation addict although in this case the son easily eclipses his father by being addicted to pretty much everything.
Terence exerts so much time and energy trying to get on the good side of his bookie Ned Schoenholtz (Brad Dourif) and turn his bum luck around that he might as well be the protagonist of a semi-autobiographical James Toback drama. The titular corrupt law enforcement agent is addicted to cocaine. He's addicted to heroin. He loves Crack so much that he proudly brandishes his “lucky” crack pipe to gangster and fellow crack cocaine enthusiast Donald "Big Fate" Godshaw (Xzibit) and asks him “You don’t have a lucky crack pipe?”, a line that somehow failed to become a ubiquitous national catch phrase.
At the risk of crack-shaming a fictional character, I would argue that a truly lucky crack pipe would be one that goes unused because there’s nothing lucky about being addicted to that crack rock, except, perhaps, that it makes you a more morbidly fascinating fictional character, a doped-up monster of corrupt authority running on empty in a land of shadows and wind, ghosts and voodoo.
Terence is addicted to many, many mood-altering substances, both of the prescribed and illegal variety but he’s also addicted to danger and self-destruction. He’s chasing death and self-obliteration one line and snort and one cavalierly committed crime at at time.
To really get into the minds of criminals, Terence never stops committing crimes, but also, because, you know, it's more fun to be high out of your mind all the time.
Terence has a plan for ridding the streets of drugs as audacious as it is self-centered. He’s aggressively re-directing the flow of cocaine, heroin and marijuana from crime-ravaged, Hurricane-devastated poor neighborhoods into his own blood stream, where it can do him the most good and the most harm.
For Terence, heaven is a fully stocked evidence room overflowing with bags of white powder and pills and all of the other illicit, illegal substances he relies upon just to make it from one terrible day to the next. He’s vibrating perpetually with nervous, coked-up energy.
In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Cage is scary skinny. He’s cocaine skinny, heroin skinny, been-up-three-days-without-eating skinny. He’s so skinny he doesn’t seem to inhabit his own body. Instead he seems to be temporarily haunting it until it finally gives up following years of unrelenting abuse. Cage plays a character so exhausted on an existential, spiritual and physical level that nothing short of eternal sleep will do.
Cage specializes in playing men on the edge, men with no off switch, men whose energy and desperation is perpetually cranked up to 11. That’s Terence. He has no boundaries, no sense of right and wrong, just a rapacious, insatiable and unquenchable need for sensation, for kicks, for anything that will get the blood flowing and remind him why he’s improbably still alive.
In the most queasily transgressive scene in the film he harasses a couple outside a nightclub and, playing on their fear of getting arrested and the social disgrace that comes with it, bullies the woman into having cracked-up public sex with him while her humiliated boyfriend is forced to watch, a “Cuck” as the worst kind of young people apparently say these days.
It’s a crime of lust, on some level, but it’s also a crime of opportunity and, perhaps more than anything, a crime of power. Terence doesn’t just abuse his power egregiously. He flaunts his abuse of power over the poor, vulnerable people cursed with having to deal with him and people like him every day. He knows all too well that he is protected by the badge and by his position on the force but also by a sense of white male privilege that leads him to think that he’s entitled to everything that he wants, whether it’s a woman’s body or a stash of hard drugs or the power to determine who lives and who dies and why.
Terence begins the movie in a state of complete, psychotic exhaustion. Over the course of the film his already fraying mind begins to betray him. He begins to commune with the spirit world, to see things that are not there. When a man dies, he can see his soul dancing, and let me tell you brother, he does not like it one bit! No, he’s a straightforward guy. When a dude dies around him, his spirit better die with him, and not show off some flashy breakdancing before the devil takes him away.
Cage’s performance here is always big, always theatrical, always epic but there are rare moments when the volume is cranked way down and the fury and aggression of his character is unexpectedly but poignantly replaced by something quiet, something somber, something almost child-like.
There’s something almost feral about Cage here. His laugh is the demented cackle of a madman who can’t hide his darkness from the world, or even conceal it. He’s like a lizard, almost, but also way too human in his neediness, his rage, his hunger.
Part of what makes Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans so fascinating is that it feels at once like high pop art and lurid exploitation. The movie is, if anything, all too in touch with its drive-in movie soul. It’s trash in the best possible sense, a vulgar, boundary-pushing piece of pulp fiction executed with feverish conviction and an underlying sense of sad, surreal spirituality.
In the often dreary years following Port of Call New Orleans, Cage would make maddeningly interchangeable movies with titles like Stolen, Trespass and Seeking Justice. He would make so many movies in New Orleans that he’s practically the weak-chinned, balding poster boy for the many wonderful tax incentives Louisiana offers filmmakers to work in their fine state.
Something magical happened with Nicolas Cage and New Orleans in a cult movie that gave the Oscar-winner’s character (he portrays the role of “Bad Lieutenant”) and the legendarily flavorful city where the movie is set equal billing in the title. The same would not be true of the many films to come that were either filmed in New Orleans or cast Cage as either a cop or a criminal.
But it just wasn’t the same. The explosive alchemy of Herzog, Cage and New Orleans led to something greater and crazier than its impressive parts. The preeminent cult film embraces the madness and mystery and the irrepressible, unkillable life force of both its setting and its star, who here prove a match made both in heaven and the deepest pits of hell.
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