Bad Lieutenant: Mashed Up For Your Viewing Pleasure
Taking its name from the 1992 Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant, Werner Herzog’s new film bears almost no resemblance to the original, grungy cop drama. Do not confuse them; where Harvey Keitel plays a gunslinging cop laden with guilt and remorse, in Nick Cage’s hands, the character becomes a self-conscious amalgam of genre-busting policemen, assembled from bits of everything from Police Academy to Miami Vice to Lethal Weapon, with a bit of Bad Boys-parody thrown in for good measure; where Keitel pursued a nun’s rapist, Cage tracks down the murderer of a Senegalese family; where the original was a straightforward crime drama about a drug-addicted “bad cop,” Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is equal parts a lighthearted reworking of the 90’s police caper, a reflection on the mania of our overstimulated society, and a meditation on coping with catastrophe, that embeds the texture of addiction into every character and point of view.
From the first scene, Nick Cage plays his ridiculous cop with the confused visage, thick voice, and bumbled morality of a crack-smoking expert. His wonton disregard for the law, in letter and principle, take him from betting on a prisoner’s untimely demise in a flood (which we assume is hurricane Katrina) to waxing philosophical about his expensive underwear, to finally jumping into bubbling sewage in order to save him – for no discernable reason.
Only in this first scene do we encounter Katrina, but her impending wrath becomes the silent backdrop for much of the film’s destructive mania and crossed-wires communication, the kind of post-catastrophe insanity that the disaster made famous in the wake of 2005. Like the city’s quickly rising sewage, the anything-goes ethic, hilarious dialog, and whimsical plot structure of the first scene quickly immerse McDonagh and viewer alike in a bizarre sequence of events and intentions.
In the opening, and throughout the film, Cage is (as usual) at his best not when he is the focus of the frame, engaged in dialogue – but those moments between action, when walking, sniffing, rubbing his nose, or looking dryly down at the drowning victim below him with some mix of pity and disgust. For the most part, he plays a drug addict masterfully; after taking a long pull from his outstretched thumb and forefinger, a dollop of white powder shooting up his nose and popping his head back at just the right moment, eyes momentarily bugging out, you’ll find it hard to believe he’s not snorting cocaine (and, at the perfect, comically mistimed moment, heroin).
In a brief question and answer panel at the Telluride Film Fest, Cage claims that unlike his “photorealistic approach” to addiction in Leaving Las Vegas, where he’d
try a couple drinks to see how it made me feel, I did Bad Lieutenant completely dry… I’d rev up on set with vials of sugar, and when Werner once demanded to know “Nick, what’s in that vial?!” I had to stay in character, and shouted back: ‘IT’S COKE!’
Explaining his acting philosophy in terms of fine art, Cage described this more “impressionistic” approach to the character as both freeing and relaxing, leading to a performance of slightly ad-libbed blocking and off-the-cuff emoting. Right from the start, Cage grabs the camera and lets you know he’s in charge, comfortable with his darker side, his bemused sneer and hunched shoulders conveying equal parts the perfunctory highs and perpetual withdrawal of a an addict who smokes crack and blows cocaine on the hour. In a film which quickly shrugs off it’s antecedent’s obsession with such tiresome pretenses as ‘plot’ and ‘realism’ as tangential to the gritty feel, the character study of a nearly psychopathic dirty cop is both fitting and entertaining.
Alongside Cage, some fantastic supporting roles really bring the underbelly of New Orleans to life. Most notably, Eva Mendes plays his prostitute girlfriend with a lurid sexiness and an equally unquenchable thirst for drugs; the team forms a perfectly dysfunctional pair, and while they seem to be addicted to each other more than in love per se, their relationship grounds the film in a refreshing honesty. Jennifer Coolidge plays a pitch-perfect, beer-chugging, white-trash alcoholic to hilarious effect; Brad Dourif is a fantastic greaseball loanshark with Lynchian demeanor and a propensity for showing up at the wrong moment; Val Kilmer and Michael Shannon play the more straight-laced foils to Cage’s bad cop who inevitably get caught up in his bull-in-a-china-shop detective techniques.
Although never pictured onscreen, Werner Herzog manages to manifest his presence in the chaotic storyline just as fiercely. The peculiar focus on reptiles – the very first images of a snake winding its way through the bars of the flooded prison, the tripping iguanas, and the superstar, karaoke crocodiles – serves as the film’s Greek chorus, punctuating the events in an overt display of directorial personality. Just when you start to take Terence too seriously, or believe the film is finally trying to effect some kind of logical exposition, there’s a thirty second cameo of a flirting iguana breaking the fourth wall, showing you that no, no: Herzog is still playing with you, making sure you’re having a good time and not getting too wrapped up in the pulp.
Herzog constructs New Orleans as a land of rampant garbage, destroyed one-level homes, low- and high-class prostitutes, deeply ingrained racism, myriad addictions, and celebrity baby mommas, the kind of Americana we’re surprised to find described so accurately by a foreigner. In one of the more sickeningly humorous subplots that characterize the film’s taste for bizarre juxtapositions, a black woman combs the hair of a white, wheelchaired elderly woman in a barren hotel room, while her teenage son who’s done nothing wrong decides to enter in through the fire escape, as if that were the normal mode of entry; returning to the same room, Cage later terrorizes the elderly woman by pulling out her life-support oxygen tubes in order to extort information out of her caregiver. It turns out the elderly woman has connections to people in power; confronted with this travesty of “police work,” McDonagh scrapes by with not a slap on the wrist but, eventually, a promotion. This is the life of a detective in Herzog’s madcap New Orleans, where the more unscrupulous you can be, the quicker you’ll rise to the top.
Somehow, Herzog sums up the 21st century America perfectly, capturing the dark corridors and lush, post-revolution plantation countryscapes in a hazy, bluish, fluorescent palette. Everything takes on a peculiar bruised quality, as if, like the prostitutes Terence scams to get a quick fix drug du jour and whatever sex he can swindle, even the scenery had been mugged, buggered, and left to dry out in a druggy haze.
Stealing the idea of a “Bad Lieutenant” and placing him in a “Port of Call” where no ships come into play, in New Orleans, a mecca of French-Cajun-American-Spanish linguistic and culinary overlap, the title alone implies a kind of re-worked binge of ideas and conglomerated themes, a mashup of American culture reprocessed through his eyes and for his own purposes.
For all its creative bluster and original approach to ancillary material, the film feels rough, almost unfinished. While Cage plays his detective well, generally, there’s more than a few scenes I imagine he wishes he could revisit to polish up. Some sequences of straightforward dialogue, in particular, fail to convince as anything other than Cage’s attempts to emulate the effects of drugs he’s never taken and emotions he’s never felt. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between. Worse are Frankie’s awkwardly introduced morality tale involving AA, and Terence’s sappy, unnecessary reunion with a childhood silver spoon in the last half hour. The overt deus ex machina ending brings the story screeching to a halt so abruptly it seems almost like they ran out of shooting days and had to devise a quick-fix closer on the fly, although the film’s obsession with directorial zaniness certainly doesn’t make it feel too out of place. Given the fantastic breakdancing soul after a Scarface drug-binging, shoot-em-up homage, there’s little territory the film could cover in order to really shock us; if it does, it’s was certainly hard-earned.
With Port of Call: New Orleans, Herzog has given us another masterful reinvention of the hard-boiled cop drama; working with comedy, the director shows a new side of himself that kept me guessing what he was going to throw at us next, more than any Michael Crichton-bred twisting-turning thriller. Anyone expecting something serious, or even remotely like the Ferrara original, is sure to be disappointed, and if Herzog hasn’t captured you by the over-the-shoulder crocodile scene, check to make sure you haven’t lost your sense of humor somewhere in the seat next to you; this film aims low, lower than its overflowing gutters, garnering more than its fair share of unbelievably tasteless moments and over the top, drugged-out policework gags, but like McDonagh, it achieves in disgrace what other films can only aspire to.
Here’s hoping the reworking trend continues and someone brings us another installment, compounding the genre mashup. May I volunteer Quentin Tarantino directing Chuck Norris in Bad Captain: Airport of Call Baghdad?