Canon of Film

October 2, 2017

CANON OF FILM: ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’

'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,'

This week, we will be taking a look at Werner Herzog’s ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’. For the story behind the genesis of CANON OF FILM, you can click here.


Director: Werner Herzog

Screenplay: William Finkelstein

If there ever was a better example of how to show the old adage true that it’s not what the film is about but rather, how it’s about it… Abel Ferrara’s 1992 masterpiece ‘Bad Lieutenant‘, took place on the streets of New York and starred Harvey Keitel as a “bad lieutenant”. He wasn’t even given a name in the film. He did every drug he could, he pulled over women to sexually harass them, he screwed hookers, and gambled large amounts of money. In between, he tries to solve a crime, haphazardly involving the rape of a local nun. I met Abel Ferrara at a film festival a few years ago. He’s an old man now, who still makes movies with the same passion as the other Little Italy born filmmaker of the streets, Martin Scorsese, although he lacks the ingenuity of his counterpart, he shows his characters as cold, cunning and often single-mindedly obsessed, if they’re of a mind at all. Ferrara, along with Keitel’s great performance, created a character who not only lacked a moral compass, he had completely abandoned such decision-making obstacles years ago, and was therefore capable of doing almost anything and on top of that, he was thoroughly unpredictable. Ferrara made him fatalistic.

Bad LieutenantHis films are as much a reflection of Ferrara as Herzog’s films are as much a reflection on him. It wasn’t enough for the insane, maniacal German to remake the movie, give it an almost unreasonably long title, and set the movie in a post-Katrina New Orleans where you’re just as likely to run into an alligator on the road as you are an accident. No, to see through his reimagining, he gets Nicolas Cage to play the role. Cage takes more chances and risks with roles than any other actor working today. I genuinely consider him the best actor working today, and it’s in no small part for his ability to find some way of taking what’s on the page and finding new twist or infliction that nobody else would come up with; he’s constantly trying to reinvent acting. Now, he’s given a role in ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,‘ which has written to give him an unlimited amount of freedom for him to work, and he’s got the only director insane enough to let him do whatever he wants. Going in, you know this film will be interesting to watch, but Herzog then takes the story, expands on it greatly, and pulls a sly trick by surprising us with an ending, that’s probably completely wrong for the character and the story, but perfect for this dark, dark comedy (Yep, 2 darks).

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans‘ is a f***ing trip, and I mean that in every sense of the word, particularly all senses that involve lucky crack pipes. After getting addicted to Vicodin after injuring his back and being promoted to Lt., Terence McDonagh (Cage) works on solving a mystery involving the execution deaths of an entire Senegalese family. A local kingpin is suspected (rapper Xzibit). In the meantime, he’s gambling on college football and losing badly. His hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes, surprisingly good) is one of his few solaces. She’s a coke-addict as well, and their mutual bad habits keep them together. He has an apparent soft spot for his former cop father (Tom Bower), although when pressed, he doesn’t even know what his beloved dog’s name is. He’s an alcoholic who’s trying AA again, much to the dismay of his beer drinking wife (Jennifer Coolidge, also very good). It says something about a movie when it involves Val Kilmer as a fellow policeman and I could have easily forget to mention him. He has a great exchange with Cage as they argue over whether there’s an iguana on Cage’s coffee table. There is one shown, and it, like all the animals in the film, including the dead ones, is real, but whether it actually was there is anybody’s guess. Lt. McDonagh is so drugged up practically every second of the movie and does so much unbelievable crap that for all I know there wasn’t a single hallucination in the film. Well, they aren’t hallucinations to the person experiencing them, as Hunter S. Thompson would often point out.

'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,'Although I’m attracted to a lot of different kinds of films, sometimes the films that grab me the most are the movies that go for broke, do everything balls out, warts and all, and despite my critical eye, I give credit as much for sheer guile as I do for storytelling ability. Herzog has made a career out of movies like that, so has Cage. Filmmakers like P.T. Anderson, David Lynch and Ken Russell have fascinated me in the same way. Their films can be massacred and criticized, and sometimes they should, but for all their indulgences, they are so rare, that it is a joyous relief to find films that don’t know the meaning of the word timid. This movie lost timidness even before Herzog decided on the title. This is one of his very best films, right up with ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God‘ or ‘Strozsek‘ or ‘Grizzly Man‘ and it’s perhaps his most underrated; Herzog will never make a boring movie, and he’s nothing if not excessive. The only thing crazier than his masterpiece “Fitzcarraldo” a movie about a man trying to build an opera house in the Amazon by pushing a ship up a mountain, is probably the behind-the-scenes story of how he made that film, made famous by Les Blank’s documentary “Burden of Dreams”. Or, any other one of his movies, and half his real life. (Really, the question isn’t why would you put Nicolas Cage with Werner Herzog, the question should be why hadn’t they worked together before? Or for that matter since; I’m not sure I can come up with a better pairing of actor and director today.)

I doubt everyone will have my reaction to ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,’ but I can guarantee this–you will be entertained. I hate to repeat myself, but I have to say it again, it will be one helluva f***ing trip.

'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,'

About the Author

David Baruffi
David Baruffi
David Baruffi has been a successful unemployed screenwriter for, let's be vague and call it "years". He's got a B.A. in Film Studies from UNLV, is a certified script supervisor and has done a little bit of everything in film, but mostly is a writer. Personally on his own blog "David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews" which is at,and professionally has written several scripts and stories, for himself, and for others and as a ghostwriter. When he's not doing that he watches his autistic brother most days and he looks like two old puppets.


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