dir: Werner Herzog
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Herzog has long been acclaimed as one of the nuttiest directors of all time, so it makes a kind of deranged sense that he would be the one that picked up the mantle no-one else wanted. The Abel Ferrara directed Bad Lieutenant, at least the one starring Harvey Keitel and his penis, is one of my all time favourite films, of that have no doubt. When I watch it even today I marvel at just how demented and heart-rending it all is. How harrowing and still funny.
This is in no way a remake, but I guess there is some kind of thematic connection. That’s being too kind – there’s no goddamn connection. The only connection is that the main cop character is at the rank of lieutenant, and he uses a lot of drugs and probably commits / ignores as many crimes as he solves or pursues.
Keitel’s character was trapped in a hideous (and sometimes darkly comic) downward spiral because of, considering the heavy dose of Catholicism permeating the flick, either his abandonment of God, or his abandonment by God. The bleeding saviour himself appears in front of Keitel, who lets loose with the most disturbing keening / primal howling you’ll ever hear or laugh at in that or any other film.
Here, I think the sometimes great, more often terrible actor Nicolas Cage, is doing whatever nutbag nuttiness pops into his or Herzog’s head, and most of the time it doesn’t make any sense, but then this isn’t supposed to make complete sense. There are long sequences where the camera focuses on alligators and iguanas that make no sense in this or any other movie, including documentaries on how the lizards of New Orleans were worst affected by Hurricane Katrina. It’s just fucking nutty.
Katrina plays its obligatory part in such a story by being the cause of Terrence McDonagh’s (Cage) promotion to the rank of lieutenant after he saves a prisoner from the rising waters, but also the source of his drug problems. He screwed his back up in some way during the rescue which means his original addiction was to prescription painkillers. Now he does coke, crack cocaine and heroin by the handful as well, and barely anyone notices.
His girlfriend Frankie is a very understanding prostitute who’s also an addict (the always easy on the eyes but not the ears Eva Mendes), and he never really seems to have that much trouble keeping her happy as long as the drugs are free and free-flowing. Being a cop, and a clearly corrupt cop at that, he has no difficulty scoring wherever he goes, whether it’s from drug dealers, crime scenes, the evidence locker or his girlfriend’s clients.
And wherever it is that he goes, he goes with a lopsided gait and one shoulder significantly higher than the other. His gun, since he (I guess) can’t use a holster, always sits in the front of his waistband, always ready to be pulled out and waved at people whether he’s shaking people down for whatever drugs they have on them, or screaming for attention at the local chemist.
Speaking of the nightclub shakedown, it’s interesting to do a quick comparison with a similar scene in the original film that this strange concoction dares to reference. One of the most famous / infamous scenes in the original had the Bad Lieutenant pull over a car with two teenage Jersey girls inside. He then proceeds to hassle them, culminating in a scene where one of the girls is instructed to purse her lips into an ‘O’ shape, whilst the other big-haired bridge-and-tunnel guidette is instructed to display for him her (still clothed) ass. Harvey proceeds to masturbate as this curious tableau is put on for his benefit, finishes his business, then tells them to get the fuck out of Dodge.
In the Port of Call - New Orleans version, Cage hassles a young guy and girl as they leave a club, steals their drugs, smokes crack with the girl, and then has sex with the girl in front of her boyfriend, and then shoots off a round to insist that the guy stay and watch Cage fuck his girlfriend.
My, what a long way we’ve come since the 1990s. The scene from the first film is uncomfortable, demeaning, demented and perhaps almost blackly funny.
The voice Cage uses as he’s asking this underwear-less girl about whether she was ever molested or abused as a child has to be heard to be believed. Cage pulls out whatever stops, inhibitions, notions of decency or aspects of professional integrity with this performance that ever held him back before, and we’re not talking about someone who’s ever shown that much restraint in the past. For every good performance he’s ever been involved in, there are ten for which the words ‘over the fucking top’ become an understatement.
And here, considering he’s working with Werner Herzog, there’s not a molecule of incentive for him to restrain himself in any way. Herzog is not famous for making restrained and gentle flicks about sane and balanced people. His films have generally starred mad people playing madder people doing crazy shit. His best flick (in my unhumbled opinion) is Aguirre: Wrath of God, during which it is more than alleged that Herzog himself held a gun to his lead actor, Klaus Kinski’s, head to force him to do what he wanted on camera. The actor was mad, the character of a Spanish conquistador intending on finding the mythical golden city of El Dorado to form his own kingdom was madder, and the director who thought nothing of risking everyone’s lives to get the shots he wanted, was maddest of all.
Since that wasn’t mad enough, he then made the film Fitzcarraldo about a mad guy, again played by Kinski, who decides he wants to transport a huge river boat over a mountain. To make the film, Herzog and everyone else have to, you guessed it, transport a huge river boat over a mountain.
On and on, a succession of mad people in mad films. Even his documentaries are about mad people, like Timothy Treadwell, the amateur naturalist who lived with grizzly bears and was convinced he had some deep connection to them, up to and probably including the moment when they ate him.
And so to this illustrious stable Herzog has added Nicolas Cage, who gives here, and has been giving insane performances for most of his career. His Terrence McDonagh doesn’t make any sense in the wreckage of New Orleans or anywhere else for that matter, but he is sometimes funny to watch, and the story keeps accommodating him as if he’s a mad holy man / saint and not a completely drug-fucked nut. The plot of the flick hinges on the murder of a Senegalese family, but it’s really just a reason to have Cage stumble around doing whatever corrupt shit he can think of. He almost seems to luck into and out of every fucked up situation he could possibly manage. In the same way that the original BL’s spiral ensured every situation would only get worse and worse until the inevitable resolution, here Terrence’s trajectory is almost a reverse-morality tale as if to reward the absolute corruption of his soul with rewards instead of comeuppance.
There’s a key scene where everything that was going wrong starts to go right, and the sole purpose it serves is to remind us that the joke’s on us. The ending, which seems to undercut the almost dementedly touchy-huggy ending where everything looks like it’s going to be great – great – GREAT! for everyone, is belied, in a depressing but almost reassuring way, by the repetition of a key scene.
But then it finishes with some fish at the end, and I dare you to make any sense of that. And what the fuck was going on with the iguanas anyway?
Most of the actors in this, and there’s an impressive cast list, quite often have a look on their face like they’re not sure what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter in a Werner Herzog flick. They’re along for the ride, just like we are.
7 ways in which I’d like to watch a documentary of Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage watching this flick just to see the embarrassment on Cage’s face out of 10
“Shoot him again.”
“His soul is dancing” – The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans