This time, it’s not Nicolas Cage’s fault: Werner Herzog has lost his mind. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans borrows broad strokes from Abel Ferrara’s original 1992 film about a vice-addled cop and then, in weird, random bursts, just goes broad. Such as a crime scene that ends with iguanas looking directly into a fuzzy, sun-bleached lens as a bluesy “Release Me” plays. Or a mini-massacre that has Cage’s character whooping, “Shoot him again, his soul is still dancing!” while—seriously—said “soul” breakdances to a hoedown harmonica next to its newly deceased owner. The esteemed director has insisted that his film is not a remake, despite credits including the original’s quartet of screenwriters. Regardless, the result is a mix of drama and lunacy, at best a dark comedy of sub-Tarantino quality and at worst an affront to fans of Ferrara’s intense portrayal of personal torment.
Herzog and scripter William M. Finkelstein (two words: Cop Rock) have moved the action to post-Katrina New Orleans, where Terence McDonagh (Cage) has recently been promoted to lieutenant after saving a prisoner from drowning during the storm. His heroism also earned him a back injury, however, and an addiction to Vicodin—and coke and heroin and crack. He’s also in a love with a hooker (Eva Mendes), is a compulsive gambler, and doesn’t pass up opportunities to have sex with young girls in exchange for their drugs and the opportunity to give them a warning. The term “property room”—i.e. the place where cops store their confiscated goods—lights up Terence’s eyes.
Terence also carries on with some legitimate police work, something that Ferrara didn’t really ask his strung-out lieutenant, played by Harvey Keitel, to do in the original. The central crime is the execution-style murder of a Senegalese family that was likely a result of drug-dealing and turf wars. Terence, usually high as a kite, uses his wacked-out charm to cozy up to both a teenage witness and a suspected kingpin (Xzibit). Though “cozy up” might not exactly be the right phrase, considering he threatens the witness’ grandmother and the elderly woman she takes care of by threatening to kill them and addressing the pair as “you fucks.”
Throughout, Terence guffaws as often as he shouts, and that’s the biggest distinction between Ferrara’s and Herzog’s films (iguanas and breakdancers notwithstanding). The original film didn’t lack humor—you couldn’t help but laugh at investigators who walked away from ugly homicides to chat about baseball playoffs—but Keitel’s unrelenting self-destruction and hours of stupor were shocking and pitiable, all the more so because he had a family. He wept, he wailed, he was burdened by Catholic guilt (especially pronounced after a nun’s rape). A scene in which his character stops a pair of teen girls for a broken taillight and driving without licenses and bullies them into sexual favors is tense and humiliating—for all parties involved.
When Cage’s Terence stops a couple of kids coming out of a club and shakes them down, it’s quick and jokey. As is the character as a whole: Terence may be constantly sniffing and stealing, but there’s no anguish here; he seems to be indulging out of the tedium of patrolling a desecrated city and his poor excuse of a love life than because of his tortured soul. He’s manic instead of depressed. And his drug use is often played for humor. One of the film’s funniest lines comes when Terence shows up heavy-lidded at his girlfriend’s door asking for a bump: “I snorted what I thought was coke, turned out to be heroin, and I gotta be at work in an hour.” Amusing but not exactly distressing.
Besides Herzog’s odd flourishes, Port of Call New Orleans will likely get attention for Cage’s performance, admittedly the best he’s given in quite a while—it’s nearly Leaving Las Vegas good, though the similarities between the roles makes it easy for the actor to borrow some tricks from that Academy Award–winning turn. His suicidal drunkard in Mike Figgis’ film was frequently entertaining as well, but still the character had more weight than Terence does here. Cage’s nuttiness gets more outsize as the film wears on, though he eventually relies on tics (snickering every time he refers to a thug’s street name—“G,” for example) and, near the end of the film, switches to a bizarre, adenoidal cotton-mouth affectation. Worse, no matter how fucked up Terence gets, he always seems on top of his work—which kind of defeats what seems to be the story’s purpose of showing a highly respected public servant self-destruct. By the time the film comes to its close—one quite different from the original—it’s clear that both Cage and Herzog had some fun. Whether the audience will go along with the loopiness is another matter.
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe Directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler
What motivates an attorney to defend the worst of the worst—those accused of terrorism to rape to cold-blooded murder? That question is at the heart of William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, a documentary produced and directed by the activist lawyer’s daughters, Sarah and Emily Kunstler, in an attempt to figure out how their father progressed from a fist-pumping civil-rights supporter to a man who, in narrator Emily’s words, “finally lost his mind” and whose regard from his family diminished as the death threats increased.
The biggest disappointment of the documentary is that the Kunstlers never really offer an explanation. Instead, we see a history of the William Kunstler, a liberal who was “radicalized” by his experience defending the Chicago Seven, the group accused of conspiring to incite a riot at 1968’s Democratic National Convention. He felt compelled to defend the seemingly defenseless, particularly minorities, but also those pre-convicted by public opinion such as the “wolf pack” of teens accused of raping and beating a Central Park jogger in 1989. He publically embraced John Gotti and wrote sonnets about the O.J. Simpson case. Eventually, a commentator speculates, Kunstler got so used to being in the spotlight that it no longer mattered to him how he got there.
Kunstler was adamant about teaching his daughters about justice, particularly pushing the theory that all whites were racists and that they needed to question the prejudices that might lie deep within themselves. “As long as there is prejudice, there is no such thing as a fair trial,” he’d say. He’d also tell his family that everyone deserved a lawyer. But, as Emily admits, “We didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father.…Other children were frightened of ghosts and monsters,” she says in voiceover. “I feared the police, the president, and the FBI.”
Emily accuses her father of having eventually “stopped standing up for anything worth fighting for,” a rather wan conclusion, especially given a late scene that reveals the exoneration of one of the alleged Central Park rapists. It’s a victory, to be sure, but not one satisfying enough to demystify the man bearing the film’s title.