December 15, 2009

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

badlieutenant1_largeThat title is an absolute mouthful, isn't it? I really just want to call it Bad Lieutenant, but then we would just get confused with Abel Ferrara's 1992 film. What makes it even more fun is deciding what, if any, connection lies between the two films. Edward R. Pressman serves as producer of both films and apparently intended this new feature to be a remake with Nicolas Cage taking over the role originally played by Harvey Keitel. Then it was set to be a similar tale in a new setting, which is what it most feels like. It has been written that Ferrara was none too pleased with the idea of a remake. In any case, the project was made with Werner Herzog at the helm and the end result is pretty wild. Granted, I have not seen the 1992 film, but suspect that I want to now.

"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." John Milton - Paradise Lost.

That quote opens one of the trailers for the 1992 film and seems just as appropriate for this new one. The Bad Lieutenant (as it will be called now) is a mesmerizing look inside a man trapped in a downward spiral with no hope of escape. It is a movie that has a plot but it is not what the movie is about. The plot is the thread used to give the audience some perspective, to organize the heavenly hell that Cage's lieutenant is building for himself. The story could have been anything, the point is not the investigation. Just watch Cage and the his character develops. He is the titular bad lieutenant.


The film opens in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Herzog does not take us to Bourbon Street, this is not about the pretty side of the city, it is not about flattering the city. We are given a degenerate of a man, a bad guy with a badge doing what he can for himself in a pretty bad situation.

To set things up, we are introduced to Terence McDonagh (Cage) and his partner (Val Kilmer) in a jail that is rapidly filling with water from the Katrina caused floods. There is one prisoner left in his cell, begging to be released. Terence talks about not wanting to ruin his expensive underwear and threatens to just let him drown. This is all before he ultimately jumps in and saves the man. What point does this serve? Well, it gives us our first glimpse of the self-righteous cop who clearly is not there out of the goodness of his heart. Still, there is a bit of humanity left in him as he does jump in.

Jump ahead a few months and we are reintroduced to Terence, now with chronic back pain and an addiction to Vicodin. He has taken up a heavy cocaine habit to help out the Vicodin, snorting a bit whenever he has the chance.


His current case involves the murder of a Senegalese immigrant family who were dealing drugs. The details are unimportant. Again, this is just here to further push Terence down the rabbit hole. Watch as he works the streets, shakes down prostitutes, stakes out night clubs to get another fix, play one bad guy against another bad guy, steal evidence, all in order to get another fix.

The big thing here is Nicolas Cage's performance. It has become pretty easy to get on him with some of the choices he has made in recent years. Look no further than Wicker Man, Ghost Rider, and Next for evidence of some lackluster performances. However, in this case, he threw himself headlong into the muck, which Werner Herzog had no qualms about piling on. It is a brave performance that sees Cage channel his inner dirt bag in the creation of a character with too many issues to count. There are not many actors who can quizzically ponder non-existent iguanas with deep suspicion and laughingly look at the break dancing disembodied soul of a dead gangster.

Quite frankly, the performance is fascinating. Cage is an intriguing performer, he does not shy away from chances even if he fails or looks silly in the process. In this case he looks silly, sounds odd, and pulls it off convincingly. He is surrounded by a solid supporting cast that includes Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Fairuza Balk, and Xzibit.


Not to be left unnoticed is director Werner Herzog. I know precious little about the man, but he has helmed all manner of fiction and non-fiction projects and strikes me as someone with whom it would be fascinating to talk shop with while also being something of a loose cannon whose films he holds strict control over. Not to say he is a perfectionist, but he makes the films he wants to make with little outside influence. His work here is quite interesting in some of the decisions he makes. The most blatant would be his attention to the cold gaze of reptiles, placing iguanas and alligators in the foreground and holding their stare. This is clearly not the mind of a man entrenched in the Hollywood machine.

What else to say? The Bad Lieutenant is a funny movie. There are some very strange things contained within. It puts corruption on display, makes it the focus, never glorifies it, but never shies away from it. It is ridiculous in a believable fashion.

Bottomline. This is not the sort of movie that will appeal to everyone. It is weird, strange, odd, and has a central character who is not easy to like (well, I am not sure you are supposed to like him). It is well shot, well acted, and different than the mainstream. It is the kind of movie that deserves a chance and should be rewarded for existing outside the norm.

Highly Recommended.

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