Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New OrleansReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/25/09 10:27:17
There have been so many patently unnecessary remakes of perfectly decent films that have hit multiplexes over the last few years that the shock and outrage that used to greet them amongst cineastes has all but disappeared—what is the point of getting all upset over a retread of a cult favorite like “The Stepfather” when another one just as silly and ill-advised will be along in the next couple of weeks. And yet, when it was announced that not only was Abel Ferrara’s edgy and deeply disturbing 1992 cop melodrama “The Bad Lieutenant” going to be remade, it was going to be a version relocated from New York City to post-Katrina New Orleans done by the great director Werner Herzog with Nicolas Cage stepping into the role so memorably essayed by Harvey Keitel, even the most jaded observers were startled by the news. For one thing, Ferrara’s tale of a self-destructive cop investigating the brutal rape of a nun who has forgive her attackers while wrestling with his own considerable demons was so dark and uncompromising (between the language, violence, drug usage and a legendarily creepy traffic stop, it was one of the first feature films to be released with the kiss-of-death NC-17 rating and even that didn’t seem like it completely covered things) that it seemed extremely unlikely that anyone would allow a contemporary film to reach the same dark places that Ferrara took viewers or that viewers would want to take that journey in the first place. Then there was the notion that a maverick filmmaker like Werner Herzog, a fierce original who has traveled from the jungles of South America to the South Pole to Wisconsin in order to provide his viewers with images that they had never before seen or even contemplated seeing, would stoop so far as to do a remake of someone else’s film, especially one from someone as equally unique and uncompromising as Ferrara. Finally, there is the inescapable fact that, with a couple of notable exceptions (such as the underrated “Knowing”), Nicolas Cage’s choice in screen projects of late has been questionable at best and that his presence in a film has become more of a warning sign than anything else these days. And yet, not only did a film, “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” actually result from such an unusual conglomeration of material and talent, it is actually one of the best films of 2009 and certainly one of the most unforgettable things that you will see on a movie screen anytime soon.Retaining little from Ferrara’s original other than the title and the basic concept, the film opens in New Orleans during the height of Hurricane Katrina as cop Terrence McDonough (Cage) injures his back while rescuing a prisoner trapped in a flooding cell. This heroic action gets him a promotion to lieutenant but also leaves him with what a doctor assures him will be a lifetime of severe back pain. Inevitably, the Vicodin he is prescribed for the pain begins to lose its effectiveness and before long, Terrence finds himself supplementing it with drugs pilfered from evidence rooms or taken from shakedowns of club kids or the clients of his hooker girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes). Even this is barely enough to allow him to maintain and as he goes through his daily routine of simply trying to maintain, he is constantly trying to find new sources for drugs, even going so far as to lead on a former girlfriend (Fairuza Balk) whose physical charms aren’t as appealing to him as her access to confiscated narcotics. If that weren’t enough, he also has a massive gambling addiction that sees him throwing away so much money on bad bets that even his bookie (Brad Dourif) refuses to take his action anymore until he actually coughs up some money.
Early on in the film, Terrence is appointed to lead the investigation of the brutal and certainly drug-related murders of a family of Senegalese immigrants. Even in his drug-addled state, Terrence is convinced that this is the work of local kingpin Big Fate (Xzibit) but lacks any concrete evidence to prove it. Eventually, he tracks down a young witness to the crime and take him into protective custody but nearly blows everything when he and Frankie lose him in a casino. However, his noticeably bent attitude towards the law winds up proving to be an asset and he is able to convince Big Fate that he is just another cop on the take in an attempt to get the goods on him. At the same time, Terrence and Frankie run afoul of another set of gangsters and as a result, they are forced to take refuge with his father (Tom Bower) and stepmother (Jennifer Coolidge) in their rambling house in the sticks. Meanwhile, Terrence’s life spins further out of control--his gambling debts continue to mount, he is in deep with two sets of gangsters, Internal Affairs has just relieved him of his piece and shield because of his more eccentric attempts to gain information, his drug supplies are running short and Frankie, under the influence of his father, decides to enter rehab--and just when it seems that things couldn’t possibly get any stranger or more unexpected, they do.
Over the years, I have seen more than my fair share of cop movies--ones with good cops and ones with bad cops--and I can say with full confidence that I have never seen one that is even remotely like the one that Herzog has presented us with here. The secret, I think, is that he has absolutely no interest in giving viewers a standard-issue police procedural. Instead, he uses the premise as a jumping-off point to present us with another bizarre portrait of a man helplessly caught in the grips of his own obsessions and struggling to maintain some semblance of control over a world that is gradually slipping away from him by meeting insanity with insanity. He achieves this by presenting us with a scenario in which the tone is constantly shifting from dark drama to darker comedy to moments so singularly strange--such as the occasional appearances of hallucinatory iguanas that only Terrence can see and an extended sequence see entirely from the point-of-view of an alligator. If I had to explain what all of it means, I couldn’t and if you tried to button down Herzog for an explanation, he couldn’t do it either. And yet, as the film lurches from one unexpected place to another, it becomes apparent that while it may seem as though it is completely insane, Herzog actually has complete control over the material and knows exactly what he is doing. At times, the film is absolutely hilarious but just when you are ready to peg the film as a weirdo comedy, he comes up with scenes, especially the sequence in which Terrence uneasily bonds with his stepmother, a woman who is maintaining addictions of her own and who recognizes what he is going through and the haunting final, that are as dramatically sound and effective as anyone could hope. Although Herzog has become better known in recent years for his documentaries than for his fiction films, his work here reminds us that he hasn’t lost his touch in that regard as this is a work that can proudly stand alongside the likes of such masterpieces as “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” or “Fitzcarraldo.”
Those films were, of course, the highpoints of the long and twisted working relationship that Herzog developed with the late Klaus Kinski and in Nicolas Cage, he has found another actor able to perfectly capture the manic sense of obsession that he is trying to convey. Like the film itself, Cage seems completely over-the-top right from the start with his hunched-over appearance, increasingly strange vocal tics and weirdo line readings (he manages to single-handedly transform the nickname “G” into a hilarious running gag simply by the way he says it) but when you look a little more closely at what he is doing, it becomes obvious that it is a performance as smartly conceived and expertly controlled as he has ever given. Some may argue that he is wildly overacting here but considering that he is playing a whacked-out junkie in a Werner Herzog film, I would argue that it is impossible to overact such a role and besides, what he does is so entertaining--check out his memorable freak-out in a pharmacy when the woman behind the counter is too busy yakking on the phone to fill his prescription--that it seems ridiculous to complain. More importantly, when it comes time to dial it down, as in the aforementioned scene with his step mom or the extraordinary final image, he pulls those moments off with an astonishing degree of grace and subtlety. The result is the best performance that he has given in a long time--one that single-handedly makes up for such silliness as “Ghost Rider” and “National Treasure” and reminds us that when he puts his mind to it, he can still be one of the most gifted and interesting actors around.“The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” is one of the most defiantly and delightfully strange films that I have seen in a while--so much so, in fact, that I suspect that many viewers will be put off by its nutty excesses and write it off as some kind of lurid embarrassment. That would be their loss because this is a bold work from a bold filmmaker whose wild excesses are infinitely more entertaining than the more sedate offerings of most directors. As I mentioned before, Werner Herzog is a director who thrives on presenting audiences with things that they have never seen before and even though he is working in one of the most familiar of all film genres--with a remake, no less--he has certainly done that here and the result is so unique and extraordinary that I am guessing even Abel Ferrara, who has largely and loudly denounced the project ever since it was announced, might get a kick out of it as well.
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