WEBTAKES: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Reviewed by Christopher Long
Produced by Stephen Belafonte, Melanie Brown, Nicolas Cage, Alessandro Camon, Boaz Davidson, Danny Dimbort, Randall Emmett, Avi Lerner, Diego J. Martinez, Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky, Edward R. Pressman, Elliot Lewis Rosenblatt, Trevor Short, and John Thompson; directed by Werner Herzog; written by William M. Finkelstein; cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger; production design by Toby Corbett; costumes by Jill Newell; edited by Joe Bini; starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Xzibit, Jennifer Coolidge, Tom Bower, Fairuza Balk, Denzel Whitaker, and Michael Shannon. Color, 122 min. A Millennium Films and First Look Pictures release.
Werner Herzog has said that cinema “comes from the knees and thighs,” but for Nicolas Cage in the nonremake Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, performance comes from the shoulders. Hunched over by chronic back pain, Cage’s crooked cop Terence McDonagh hauls his torqued frame by crack-fueled force of will through a nearly deserted city in pursuit of his brand of (in)justice. Cage’s bowed neck and constant grooming of his sweat-soaked hair mark him as much animal as human, so it should come as no surprise that Herzog directed his star to “release the wild boar” inside. What better way to process one of American cinema’s biggest hams?
Cage’s lumbering madman is a familiar Herzogian figure in a film that finds the director in unfamiliar territory. BL: POCNO is Herzog’s first feature shot entirely in a city and the results are mixed. Though the film begins with Terence rescuing a prisoner trapped in Katrina floodwaters, Herzog shows little interest in the socio-economic conditions that marked the tragedy’s wake. New Orleans serves as another of Herzog’s “embarrassed landscapes,” an abandoned shell free of storytelling impediments like civilization and, mostly, other people. The film, lensed by Herzog veteran Peter Zeitlinger, has a surprisingly commercial look with occasional “shakycam” and nary a Herzogian sublime vista in sight.
Perhaps this explains the iguanas. Herzog often casts animals in conspicuous roles and here he reaches deep into his shopworn trick bag again. While on a stakeout, the drug-addled Terence witnesses a group of singing iguanas invisible to everyone else, including the strictly ornamental Val Kilmer. The spectacle lasts for several minutes and gets big laughs but the iguanas (and a prominently placed alligator elsewhere) feel like a self-conscious attempt to stamp the exotic Herzog imprimatur on his first urban safari.
BL: POCNO represents only the second time (the other was Scream of Stone) Herzog has directed from a script he did not at least coauthor. Television veteran William Finkelstein (L.A. Law, NYPD Blue) wrote the screenplay for producer Edward Pressman who owned franchise rights to Bad Lieutenant, but the story bears only a vague resemblance to Abel Ferrara’s original (which Herzog claims he hasn’t seen.) The police procedural, originally set in New York until the production relocated to New Orleans for tax subsidies, centers around a multiple murder perpetrated by a drug kingpin (Xzibit). Terence’s investigation serves as the narrative backbone but plays second fiddle to his extracurricular activities, which include dallying with his coke-whore girlfriend (Eva Mendes), racking up debts with his bookie (the magnificent Brad Dourif), and smoking his “lucky crack pipe.”
Iguanas aside, Cage’s performance is the film’s centerpiece. He starts at over the top and climbs ever higher, wallowing in the “bliss of evil” enabled by the absence of moral order in the devastated city. Indefatigable and able to absorb any bodily abuse, he becomes the Wile E. Coyote of 24/7 rape, racism, degenerate gambling, and drug binges. And Cage sings a marvelous Looney Tune. In his most cartoonish scene, Terence, brandishing an electric razor and an Acme-brand oversized handgun, threatens an eldercare patient by cutting off her oxygen. To be fair, she not only has vital information but she’s also “the whole fucking reason this country’s going down the drain!”
Herzog doesn’t do character arc. In Finkelstein’s original script, Terence’s addiction to painkillers turned him “bad” but Herzog renders him bad from the start. His outsiders/monomaniacs remain proudly unaltered by external forces, and they sure as heck don’t learn lessons. Just as Herzog celebrated the pure Kaspar Hauser’s refusal to be de-formed by society, he cherishes the equally pure Terence’s refusal to be re-formed by it.
Both Kaspar and Terence operate in the same indifferent “Every Man for Himself” universe that permeates Herzog’s oeuvre. This universe crushed the gentle, innocent Kaspar but, perversely, rewards Terence. Right on the cusp of implosion, the very bad lieutenant suddenly has everything handed to him on a silver platter in an utterly implausible and hilariously staged scene wherein every plot strand is resolved simultaneously. The gambling debt turns windfall, the case wraps, and a promotion, pregnant (now ex-coke whore) girlfriend, and a beautiful suburban home soon follow.
But in the real happy ending, we learn the American Dream has not distracted Terence from his full-time raping and snorting duties. The Bad Lieutenant (now the Bad Captain) abides. The cosmic joke was played on Kaspar (and Stroszek and even Aguirre); now the joke is on the cosmos. Terence gets it too, chuckling at the irony: “It all worked out anyway.”
The film works out too, a surprise considering what a stupid idea it seemed (Herzog remakes Bad Lieutenant? With Nic Freakin’ Cage?). BL: POCNO isn’t exactly deep, but it succeeds as an absurdist black comedy bordering on police-fascist kitsch. The spectacle of Cage rutting at “full boar” is an unexpected treat, perhaps his finest hour. Herzog may not have found his new Kinski, but his creative marriage with Cage is made in heaven. Or, in this case, hell.
Christopher Long is a freelance film critic and independent scholar who currently writes for DVDTown.com.
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Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.