The Bad Lieutenant:
Port of Call New Orleans (Blu-ray)
Studio: First Look Films
Film Length: 122 min.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English Dolby True HD 5.1; English DD 5.1 compatibility track (640kb/ps); English DD 2.0 (256kb/ps)
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25 GB
Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 20, 2009
Blu-ray Release Date: Apr. 6, 2010
A collaboration between two masters of lunacy, Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage, the new Bad Lieutenant bears only a glancing resemblance to the 1992 Abel Ferrara cult classic. The place, time and characters are entirely different, and the brooding Catholic awareness of God’s inescapable presence that infused Ferrara’s film is nowhere to be found. In its place is just what you’d expect from the director of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God – a sense of uncontrollable wildness, both out there in the darkness, just beyond the fringe of civilization, and here inside, deep in the heart of civilization’s guardians.
It’s New Orleans, just after Hurricane Katrina has devastated the city. Police Sergeant Terence McDonagh (Cage) and another officer, Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer), stop by their flooded precinct house to retrieve items for a fellow officer. While there, McDonagh does something so uncharacteristically heroic that he receives a commendation and is promoted to lieutenant. But McDonagh’s back is injured, and his doctor tells him that he’ll be in constant pain. Prescription medication becomes a steady companion. For a man with a family history of substance abuse – McDonagh’s father, Pat (Tom Bower), is an alcoholic ex-cop with an alcoholic second wife, Genevieve (Jennifer Coolidge) – that’s a recipe for disaster.
Not that McDonagh needs much encouragement to abuse drugs. He’s already raiding the police property room (with the help of Mundt, a nervous clerk played by Oscar nominee Michael Shannon) for coke and other contraband to supply his girlfriend, a high-class call girl named Frankie (Eva Mendes). And he’s not above shaking down Frankie’s clients for their stash, if the opportunity presents itself. In a pinch, McDonagh will stake out Gator’s Retreat, a popular night club, and wait for a likely-looking couple to exit the club; then, under the guise of arresting them, he’ll roll them for whatever they’re holding and, if the woman seems willing, enjoy her efforts to “buy” his leniency as well.
McDonagh is also addicted to sports gambling, and he gets in deep enough with his bookie, Ned (Brad Dourif), that Ned comes right into the precinct to demand that McDonagh pay up or get his bones broken. Trying to fix a ticket for Ned’s daughter as a sort of “barter” for a bet, McDonagh drives out to an accident scene where he has the bad luck to encounter one of the few straight-arrows in the department, and he gets turned down cold. But the excursion isn’t a complete loss; McDonagh also runs into Heidi (Fairuza Balk), an acquaintance from a previous assignment who still has a thing for McDonagh and might be able to help him out if he can just, you know, take care of her. (The scene is classic Herzog, because it isn’t just any accident. It was caused by an alligator that crawled out on the highway, and the first thing you see is the gator sprawled on the asphalt, still twitching. For Herzog the wilderness is never very far, and part of the scene is even shot from the point of view of another gator watching at the side of the road.)
In short, McDonagh is a corrupt, dirty S.O.B., but he also happens to be a good detective. So it’s not surprising that his captain, Brasser (Vondie Curtis-Hall), puts him in charge of an important case: the execution-style murder of an entire family over what looks like a drug turf war. McDonagh quickly focuses on a local kingpin known as “Big Fate” (Xzibit), and much of Bad Lt.: New Orleans concerns McDonagh’s dealings with this smooth-talking thug. But the film isn’t primarily about the murder case. It’s about McDonagh going from bad to worse, ping-ponging among the various citizens and scoundrels with whom he’s involved himself, trying to skim across the surface of the muck that is his natural habitat – and sinking a little deeper each time.
Things get serious for McDonagh when he roughs up a civilian with sufficient connections to put him on suspension and under investigation. They get worse when he strong-arms a client of Frankie’s with mob connections, and big-time muscle comes calling, seeking compensation in both currency and sexual services. With no other allies left, McDonagh has to strike a deal with Big Fate. That’s when it gets really interesting.
Just as Harvey Keitel’s performance as the (unnamed) Lieutenant defined Abel Ferrara’s film, so does Nicolas Cage’s McDonagh define Herzog’s. Cage has meandered through some roles in recent years (Ghost Rider and Next spring to mind), but here he delivers McDonagh’s drug-fueled, sleep-deprived, desperation-driven mania with a twisted passion that it’s hard to imagine any other actor equaling. Cage gives Herzog what Klaus Kinski used to: the buzz of genuine madness. The plot becomes almost secondary.
The script for Bad Lt.: New Orleans originated from the unlikely pen of William Finkelstein, who is best-known for his work with Steven Bochco crafting legal and police dramas like L.A. Law, Civil Wars, NYPD Blue and Murder One. But Finkelstein always had a weird streak. He co-wrote most of the episodes of Cop Rock, which was one of the strangest shows ever aired on network TV (and that’s putting it mildly). His pilot for Civil Wars featured an attorney having a memorable meltdown during a deposition. With the script for Bad Lt.: New Orleans, Finkelstein dove head-first into the deep end of the delirium pool, then turned the project over to a director and star who were happy to dwell there. (Herzog has said that the script first struck him as a comedy.)
The ending of Bad Lt.: New Orleans is pitch-perfect in its irony. After the requisite mess and carnage, order appears to have been restored. Of those left standing, the guilty have been punished, and the rest appear to be leading a fine, upstanding life. All’s right with the world.
And then . . .
The Blu-ray for Bad Lieutenant: New Orleans offers an astonishingly accurate image, considering that the film runs over two hours and First Look has used a BD-25. A lot can be attributed to the film’s original photography, and it’s with that (but not with the Blu-ray) that I have issues. A casual viewer might be pardoned for thinking that the film was originated on hi-def video. It wasn’t, but it sure looks like it. Someone made the decision at the digital intermediate phase (and I have no idea who it was) to adjust the image to a video-like smoothness, utterly cleansed of anything resembling grain and with the kind of sheen that one associates with video. The work was expertly done, so that there are no motion artifacts and none of the waxy “mannequin” appearance that indicates the heavy-handed application of DNR. But it looks more like video than film.
Still, it’s a gift to the compressionist, and that’s how it looked in the theater. I can’t fault the Blu-ray for accurately reproducing what was on the digital intermediate. I can just be dismayed that, more and more, the DI process seems to be used to make film look like video.
In any case, the Blu-ray provides excellent detail, good color delineation and solid black levels. My issues with the image are a question of taste, not technique.
The highlight of the Dolby TrueHD track is the fantastic score by Mark Isham, which is by turns brooding, melancholy and foreboding. It’s perfectly suited to the mood of the film, and the TrueHD track reproduces it with intense presence and powerful bass extension. There are also a few scenes where the sound designers get a chance to play (for example, where the camera follows McDonagh as he roams through a casino searching for someone), but otherwise the track is dominated by the score and the dialogue, which is always clear.
Photography Book: Photos by Lena Herzog. Approximately 100 images taken by Herzog’s wife throughout the shoot. These are not your average production stills or publicity photos, but artful compositions, many of them not specifically tied to scenes in the film.
The Making of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (SD; 16:9 enhanced) (31:10). A superior making-of featurette consisting mostly of on-location footage and occasional interviews with Herzog, Cage and others. The featurette is organized chronologically by shooting day. Since Herzog does not shoot in studios, all of the locations had to be found in and around New Orleans. The documentary crew captured some great moments, including Val Kilmer’s Werner Herzog impression and Cage’s attempt to analogize himself and Herzog to a two-headed snake.
Alternate trailer (SD; 16:9 enhanced) (2:07). It’s not hard to see why this trailer wasn’t used. It conveys the impression of a hard-charging action film and belongs to a completely different kind of marketing campaign and release pattern.
Trailers (SD; 16:9 enhanced). In addition to the film’s trailer, the disc contains trailers for Triangle, Suicidegirls: Guide to Living, Deadline, Command Performance and Monster (the last one is not 16:9 enhanced). All but the film’s trailer play at startup and can be skipped with the chapter forward button.
It took Bad Lt.: New Orleans almost a year to get a theatrical release, and then it never went beyond the arthouse circuit. That’s a shame, because the film is Cage’s best work in years, and because Herzog is a world-class director who made a great film. At least there’s a modestly priced Blu-ray that provides viewers as good an experience as any theater.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (Dolby TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub