The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans 11/22/2009
Directed by Werner Herzog
As Werner Herzog, the world’s greatest living filmmaker, would himself ensure you, the relation between his new film and Abel Ferrara’s 1992 brilliant work, Bad Lieutenant, is minimal. This is not a remake, a re-imagining nor a sequel. Some thickheaded producer had the rights to the title and there the story ends. Herzog didn’t want the title, but was given the right to add “Port of Call New Orleans” to the end of it. His other film of this year is titled My Son My Son What Have Ye Done, depending if you count by word or syllable, these films finish first and second in either order in the year’s longest title contest. Yay. This comes as no surprise I suppose, considering he has used titles such as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”, “Every Man For Himself and God Against All”, “Encounters at the End of the World”. Meh. What matters is what is on the screen, my friends, and on the screen in Port of Call is a mishmash of genre clichés, TV conventions, and Herzog’s (as Jean-Luc Godard would call it) German craziness. And from this wonderfully peculiar boiling pot comes a surprisingly delicious stew.
Nicolas Cage, in his splendidly over-the-top mode, plays a police officer, Terence McDonagh, who is promoted to lieutenant after rescuing a convict from drowning in a flooded prison. When McDonagh meets this convict again, both men are in different places in their lives, and the film’s greatest moment occurs. Until then we will see the lieutenant do a lot of drugs, violate a great many folk, and spiral downwards in what Herzog refers to as a “bliss of evil”. The badder this lieutenant gets, the more he loves it.
Nicolas Cage gives what is likely one of his five best performances and he proves once again to be one of the most frustrating of all modern actors. He very well may be the boldest and most talented of America’s actors, yet he irresponsibly wastes his blessings on Hollywood trite such as Ghost Rider and National Treasure. Gotta pay the bills somehow, huh? I guess Cage has a lot of bills then. He has graced us with greatness in films such as Matchstick Men, The Weather Man, and most notably in the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Adaptation in which he played identical twin brothers we could always tell apart from each other.
Cage is best when crazy, and Werner Herzog is his perfect match. Both men are crazy in their own unique ways, and their collaboration here is one of harmonious insanity. The film screams of co-authorship and reading further into the production of the film confirms this. Herzog and Cage created the film’s greatest moments on the fly, such as when McDonagh is seen in a retirement home using an electric razor in an old lady’s room right before assaulting her. At least, even during his moral decline, he never loses sight of the importance of grooming and time management.
William M. Finkelstein, who wrote the film’s script, has spent years writing for cookie cutter TV shows, and through uninformed speculation I have determined Herzog is responsible for all of the subversive qualities of Port of Call. Having reworked the script, Herzog lets the clichés play out, but with his eccentric authorship stamped all over the place. His usually brilliant use of animals is on full display, as we see alligators, one killed, one unnoticed, and iguanas that only our drug-induced anti-hero can see. These are the standout scenes of the film, along with a shootout involving a break-dancing soul and the film’s closing moment. That the animal footage is attached with intended connotations is doubtful. Such things do not normally interest Herzog. He is after something primordial and fever-dreamlike. The subject of the film is lieutenant McDonagh and these touches go a ways to conveying his state of mind and his otherwise dormant qualities.
Like I mentioned, the badder Terence McDonagh gets, the more fun he has. Likewise for the audience, as the film gets crazier, the more fun it becomes. Some viewers, most likely those not well versed in Herzog’s oeuvre, may be surprised and even irked by how thoughtful this movie is. Taking advantage of Finkelstein’s knowledge and application of film noir elements, Werner Herzog creates an unholy yet delectable marriage between this style and his. This makes for a film at once All-American yet 100% foreign. One of the oddest entries into Herzog’s body of work, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans provides a plethora of paradoxical pleasure.
by adam cook