In answer to your first question — no, you never see Nic Cage’s penis. According to most discussions and critiques I’ve read of the original Bad Lieutenant, the 1992 film’s at least as famous for a not nearly brief enough shot of Harvey Keitel’s little Mr. Wolf as it is for its unbleachably filthy depiction of a solipsist cop navigating through a somehow even more amoral world. “Gratuitous” is the first Lieutenant’s defining descriptor, and the film plays like transgression porn, taking the sins of 1970s antiheroes — heavy drug use, misdirected macho brutality, etc. — to their most sensational extremes, attempting to push the envelope after it’s already fallen off the edge of the table. Philosophical musings on guilt and spiritual redemption (themes inelegantly retro-fitted to the film in its final act) ultimately make the original worth watching. Port of Call, though, neither a remake or a sequel, is arguably a little cleaner and most definitely more consistently entertaining.
Port of Call opens on a water moccasin swimming through a swamp, an unsubtle predator metaphor that’s repeated and subverted throughout. New Orleans “in the aftermath of Katrina” seems like the opportune time for a slimy, venomous creature to commit acts of bottomless cruelty (and a less creative director than Herzog to draw on-the-nose parallels to the government’s treatment of its most powerless citizens), but Port of Call is more subtle than that (though discussing degrees of subtlety in either Bad Lieutenant film is like ranking genocidal dictators based on their mustache-grooming skills). Terence McDonagh — Cage’s coke-snorting, sex-extorting police officer — is decidedly more sympathetic than Keitel’s anonymous lieutenant and not just because McDonagh has a proper name. His first act in the film (well, second really, after pocketing stolen Polaroids of a co-worker’s naked wife) is to free a prisoner from a flooding jail cell, despite partner Stevie Pruit’s (Kilmer, whose character seems to exist only to make McDonagh look slightly less sleazy) desire to gamble on the detainee’s time of death. Diving into the neck-high water to pull out the prisoner gets McDonagh promoted to lieutenant, but it also screws up his back, a condition that earns him a painkiller prescription. Skip to six months later, and McDonagh’s heading a homicide investigation: a family of five Senegalese immigrants gunned down execution-style. At least that’s what he’s doing when he’s not placing bets with his bookie, shaking down suspects for drugs, stealing from the evidence room, or acting as pimp for his high-class hooker girlfriend (Mendes). Like its predecessor, Port of Call is less concerned with whodunit than with “how could a person do that?” but with a script penned by former NYPD Blue writer Finkelstein, the new Lieutenant more closely follows the path of a police procedural. McDonagh is actually semi-competent at his job (in the most appalling ways possible, naturally), at least until the drugs really take hold. Tension builds as his addictions begin to jeopardize the case and the lives of the film’s more relatable characters.
Herzog and Cage capitalize on the uneasy feelings a truly corrupt onscreen cop can incite (for in both films an unchecked police officer seems to answer only to God, and the Eye in the Sky doesn’t seem to be paying much attention) and they depict McDonagh’s descent in risky, sometimes puzzling ways that largely pay off as strange and engaging if not always in service to larger themes. If nothing else, Port of Call should provide more interesting discussion topics than Harvey Keitel’s wang. — Jeremy Martin
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