You don’t have to know anything about Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant to appreciate Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. In fact, you should probably leave Ferrara’s 1992 Harvey-Keitel-on-a-rampage policier alone for the time being. Supposedly there’s bad blood between filmmaker Ferrara and the makers of the “sequel,” and it confuses the issue.
Even though producer Edward R. Pressman worked on both titles — he’s one of fifteen prods on Port of Call — there’s little commonality between the two films, other than the drug-crazed police detective lead character on a downward spiral. With the story of Lieutenant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) prowling the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans, the filmmakers have definitely traded up a few notches. It’s one of Cage’s best performances in years, and another unexpected chapter in Herzog’s fascinating career.
We have to go all the way back to Junior Brown, the psychopathic strip club owner in Barbet Schroeder’s Kiss of Death (1994), to find a meatier heavy in Cage’s filmography. He’s appeared in a long list of stinkers since then, but McDonagh is a godsend for the 45-year-old actor. The bent cop plays to Cage’s strengths, which would be anybody else’s weaknesses: hangdog expression, droopy eyes, trace of a limp, inability to suppress boredom, impatience bordering on violence, etc.
Cranky McDonagh is investigating the execution murders of a family of Senegalese drug dealers. He’s a walking tropical depression. He uses crack, Oxycontin, and heroin to ease his chronic back pain, and casually rips off dope dealers and late-night clubbers to support his jones. His girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes) is a high-rise prostitute with customer-relations problems. McDonagh is also addicted to betting on college football, where he consistently picks losers. He shakes down a football player and forces him to shave points. He teams up with a mutt and a teenage crime witness. He mugs an eighty-year-old woman in a nursing home. He’s on a roll.
Not since Leaving Las Vegas has Cage looked so dissipated. McDonagh is clearly running on fumes in the second half — the shakes, pale complexion, hunched over with one shoulder out of joint, comically incapacitated. He looks like he can barely stand up, but has the strength to pistol-whip you right quick. A beautifully repellant portrait of a man out of control.
We keep waiting for Herzog to tip his hand, but there’s very little in Bad Lieutenant to suggest that the maker of Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Nosferatu is behind the camera. In a way, it’s a European art-film fanatic’s dream — imagine Werner Herzog as a Hollywood genre director. He practices subtraction. Turns out his noirish vision of New Orleans (screenplay by TV vet William M. Finkelstein) is as stripped-down and terse as any Fifties crime pic by Phil Karlson or Don Siegel. No shots of Lower Ninth Ward wreckage, no jazz funerals whatsoever, a dearth of Bourbon Street, and Mark Isham’s music score soft-pedals the funk. Herzog spreads the local color evenly across McDonagh’s sour landscape — it’s one or two shades of dull, beat-out gray, enlivened at intervals by strategically placed critters: a water moccasin slithering into a flooded jailhouse, a gator POV shot, a pair of gratuitous iguanas, a dog.
The supporting cast does Cage justice. Mendes is absolutely believable as a mild-mannered hooker. Val Kilmer’s part as McDonagh’s detective partner might have been beefed up a bit. Xzibit excels as Big Fate the crime boss. Fairuza Balk portrays an idealized version of a kinky traffic cop. That’s Brad Dourif as the bookie and Michael Shannon as Mundt, the obliging flunky in the police property room, where they keep the impounded narcotics. Back at McDonagh’s boyhood home outside of town, his father Pat (Tom Bower) and dad’s girlfriend Genevieve (the wonderful Jennifer Coolidge) keep the beer flowing. Various cops, Louisiana Italian hoods, Biloxi riffraff, nurses, johns, ex-cons, and parole violators filter through the scenery, causing distress to our man McDonagh.
Herzog, of course, is one of the finest documentarians in the business, and even though his gritty war adventure Rescue Dawn pointed to new directions in the narrative form, it’s hard to think of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans as anything but a curiosity. Turn Herzog loose in the bizarrely shrunken Crescent City with the rampaging Cage and see what happens. Cage bubbles over with menace while Herzog merely simmers, peering into the eyes of iguanas for inspiration. For Cage it’s a major return to form. For Herzog, a vacation in the Land of Dreams.
William Kunstler, the epitome of the radical leftist lawyer, first made a national name for himself when he defended the Chicago 8 (later to become the Chicago 7 after Black Panther Bobby Seale was removed from the trial) on charges of inciting to riot during the 1968 Democratic convention. But he had a life, a separate life as it happens, before Chicago and after it.
His daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler, made the timely documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe partly to celebrate their late father (he died in 1995) and partly to reiterate his fundamental beliefs — the beliefs that caused him to defend a wide variety of controversial cases, from Native American civil disobedience at Wounded Knee, South Dakota to the notorious Central Park jogger murder case in New York City to the trial of El Sayed A Nosair, accused of murdering Jewish nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Kunstler was an “armchair liberal” attorney living with his first wife and their children in Westchester County, New York when the Sixties civil rights movement caught his attention. He volunteered to defend arrested activists, and went on to become, in his words, completely radicalized at the bizarre Chicago 7 trial, in which Seale was bound and gagged in the courtroom. The experience taught him to not only recoil from power, but to actively resist it. There are times when disobeying the law is a necessity. As he argues in a film clip: “I suspect that better men than the world has known, and more of them, have gone to their deaths through a legal system than through all the illegalities in the history of man.”
The Kunstler sisters are part of their father’s second family. Using home movies as well as newsreels, they work through their initial doubts about their father taking the cases of defendants like John Gotti, and come to peace with his legacy. “The best thing a person can do,” said Kunstler, “is to stand up to injustice, even when no one agrees with you, even if you have to risk everything to do it.”