“Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans” Floods The Screen With Manic, Visceral Intensity

Posted: December 12, 2009 in movies
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"Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans" Movie Poster

I know what you’re thinking. You’re outraged. Disgusted. Maybe even mortified if you’re especially sensitive, at the very least perplexed if you’re not. What kind of a human being would incorporate a play on words about the tragic flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the title of his post? I mean, that’s just beyond tasteless, right?

Yes, it is. And yes, you should be royally pissed at me right now. That’s intentional. You see, I want you to stop reading this review. I want you to shut your computer off. Hell, if you’re not winning the lottery or getting it on with the woman (or man, as the case may be) of your dreams right now, I think you need to stop what you’re doing. You need to stop what you’re doing, get in your car, on the train, on the bus, on your feet, whatever — and get down to the theater and see “Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans.” It’s just that good. Whatever else you’ve got going on can wait. In fact, I’ll even helpfully stop the review right here so you can get back to it after you return.

Long pause.

Followed by another long pause.

And another.

Then a final, really long one.

Okay, back? Good, welcome back.  Great stuff, wasn’t it? Now let’s continue, shall we?

No, Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes have not just read the script for "Ghost Rider 2," despite appearances

I’m a lot like you, dear reader. When I first heard that independent film legend Werner Herzog was working on a “reimagining” of Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” my first reaction was “why?” I mean, it’s not like it’s a movie that necessarily has “remake” or “sequel” written all over it. Like most of Ferrara’s stuff, it’s a pretty singular work that doesn’t exactly scream out for a fresh set of eyes to reinterpret it. And Harvey Keitel’s performance — I mean, shit, how are you gonna top that? Hell, how are you gonna even come close to equaling it? Why try? What’s the point?

Well, there wouldn’t be any point. And Herzog knows that. And to his credit, he doesn’t even try to go that route. This new “Bad Lieutenant” only tangentially relates to the first in that it explores the same theme of a monumentally crooked and sleazy cop trying to crack a big case in the midst of a tremendous, and entirely self-inflicted, downward spiral in his life.  Apart from that, the two have nothing to do with each other. Gone are the obsessive visual and thematic references to Catholic iconography and catechism. The setting has been transposed from New York to a just post-Katrina New Orleans (well, technically the first scene takes place as the flood waters are rising, then we jump ahead six months,  into the city’s  “rebuilding” — and Dear Lord do I use that term loosely — period). Hell, even the main character has a different name, different set of life circumstances, different everything. In truth, the only reason I think Herzog stuck with the title is because otherwise audiences would have come out of the theater saying “you know, that one kinda reminded me of  ‘Bad Lieutenant'” — so by invoking the original so plainly he’s able to, at the very least ironically if not downright perversely, have this film taken as a more stand-alone work than if he had just called it something. File that under “go figure.” (And file this under “go figure,” as well — and probably of interest to absolute obsessives (who? me?) only (and it shouldn’t even be to us) — the title of this film in all the posters and other advertising is listed as “Bad Lieuteanant : Port of Call New Orleans,” while the opening credits read “The Bad Lieutenant Port Of Call : New Orleans.”)

The next thin your reviewer found a bit suspect in the pre-production stages, after wondering just why Herzog was even making this thing at all, was the casting of Nicolas Cage in the lead. Cage is a bit of an enigma, isn’t he? I mean, here’s a guy capable of delivering mind-blowingly good, once-in-a-generation performances in films like “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Lord of War” and “The Weatherman,” yet also of absolutely mailing it in, so to speak, in drivel like “Next” or the atrocious remake of “The Wicker Man.” In between the two poles we have his numerous stints as, either literally or essentially, a second-rate Elvis impersonator.

Needless to say, the end result on display here proves my worried were entirely groundless, as the best always are. Cage is in absolute top form here, giving arguably the very best performance of his entire career. He’s wiry, main, and absolutely seething with, to quote my own headline, visceral intensity. He doesn’t sweat whether or not he’s sometimes so frightfully over the top that his performance reaches caricature-like levels — hell no, instead of tiptoeing up to that metaphorical line in the sand, he rubs and smears it out with his shoe and stomps all over the spot where it used to be just for good measure. He’s absolutely fucking gone as  drugged-up, degenerate gambler (and, oh yes, cop) Terence McDonagh, and he doesn’t look back. Keep up with him if you can.

And herein lies another crucial difference between the two “Bad Lieutenant”s. In Ferrara’s version, Keitel is just completely foul. He’s not what you’d call charismatic or engaging in the least (not that I’m saying this is a bad thing, it’s exactly the type of performance that was absolutely required in the “first” film). He’s already lost. The central thematic question in the “original”, therefore, is whether or not a guy who’s absolutely beyond all hope of redemption can still find it, if not earn it, by bringing to justice the scumbags who brutally gang-rape a nun. And frankly, whether or not he even should since she’s already forgiven them herself. It’s taking place on an entirely different psychological playing field than Herzog’s film, because in this there is still some, God help me for thinking this but it’s true, likable insanity in Cage’s character. He’s got dangerous, maybe even death wish-style reckless charisma oozing out of him on a goddamn cellular level. In that respect, one could argue that this new “Bad Lieutenant” is somewhat more accessible than Ferrara’s version, because McDonagh still has enough (barely) on the ball to pull himself out of his living nightmare if he really wants to. But damn, with lines like ” I thought it was coke but it turned out to be heroin and I gotta be at work in an hour,” and “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” you gotta wonder if he isn’t enjoying his ride to hell waaaayyyy too fucking much to stop the ride.

And that’s the brilliance (and I loathe the unearned overuse of that word way more than you can possibly imagine) of Cage’s performance here in a nutshell : he’s a coiled snake that you know will strike at any moment, and you can’t decide whether you’re dreading that or looking forward to it. Then you realize you’re doing both.

"Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!"

The nominal plot of the film itself concerns Cage’s investigation of a brutal execution-style murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants, but as with Ferrara’s earlier effort, Herzog here concentrates far more on the backdrop this story plays out in front of (or, more accurately given the focus here, behind) — that of McDonagh’s exhilarating and dreadful descent into madness. Our guy Terry does everything a bad cop oughtta do : shakes down suspects for cash and drugs, gets in gambling debt up his eyeballs, rips shit off from the police property room, smokes crack, snorts coke, drinks booze, skips out of town, runs a thoroughly crooked investigation, helps the bad guys, screws around on his girlfriend (who’s a hooker herself, played by Cindy Craw—err, Eva Mendes), and worse. And while he doesn’t consistently engage in the type of outright abusively soulless depravity that Keitel did in the “original,” he pulls off one stunt so hopelessly fucked-up-beyond-all-reason that even old Harvey would probably blush.

The decision to set the story in the ravaged post-Katrina Big Easy really pays dividends, as well. Not only is it thematically appropriate on a pretentious “film scholar” asshole level (rising metaphorical flood threatens to swallow main character ), but the overall atmosphere of a decimated Third World-style “law enforcement” operation (although from what I understand the New Orleans cops weren’t exactly famous for honesty and integrity pre-flood, either) gives ample narrative “breathing space”  (did I just badmouth pretentious “film scholar” assholes a minute ago? I should have read ahead to the point where I sounded just like one — except I hadn’t written it yet. But I digress — as regular readers of this blog, if any such creatures exist,  know I so often do) to the idea of a situation where a guy like McDonagh could actually get away with some of this shit. On a purely aesthetic level, I’ve gotta congratulate Herzog, as well, for his decision to shoot this movie on an apparently cheaper grade of film stock than normal. It gives the whole flick an added level of immediacy and realism that a slicker overall appearance just couldn’t maintain. It’s a grimy story about a grimy guy shot in a way that looks grimy. Well played, Werner.

The rest of the cast holds up pretty well, too. While I’m sure nobody was dying to see a reunion of the principal players in “Ghost Rider,” Mendes does a nice turn as McDonagh’s high-priced hooker/junkie girlfriend, Frankie, Cage’s fellow Elvis-worshiper Val Kilmer is solid as his almost-as-crooked-as-he-is onetime parner, now subordinate, Stevie, the always-underappreciated Vondie Curtis-Hall turns in a seasoned pro’s performance as McDonagh’s commanding officer, rapper Xzibit is seriously bad-ass awesome as crime boss “Big Fate,” the (again always) underappreciated Brad Dourif turns in another dead-on perfect (because he always is) portrayal, in this case as McDonagh’s understandably impatient small-time bookie Ned, solid vet Tom Bower puts in  a solid vet turn as Terance’s ex-cop, ex-alcoholic father, Pat, and the (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) always underapp—forget it, I won’t even go there, I’ll just say Jennifer Coolidge has deserved a best supporting actress Oscar a couple of times now (and no, I’m not talking about her turn as Stifler’s Mom, although she sure is a million miles away from MILF territory in this movie — truth be told, I was thinking specifically of her roles in the various Christopher Guest-helmed ensemble/improv comedies, particularly “Best In Show”) and she’s an absolute scene-stealer here as Pat’s still-alcoholic second wife, Genevieve.

The two best Elvises (or is that Elvii?) since The King himself? Kilmer and Cage in "Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans"

So what we’ve got here, folks, is essentially the ultimate “bad cop” movie, and quite likely the best film of the year, period. It’s certainly going to take one hell of an effort to top it. Even Herzog’s usual, and frankly in other films sometimes jarring, asides into purely interpretative realms of surrealism (just what are the giant iguanas about? Each viewer will probably have a different explanation) work here since by the time he goes there, he’s already established such a forceful groove (do those two words seem incompatible together? I assure you they’re not) that you’re just willing to go with his frantically rushing flow.

And that’s it. I’m all out of praise to lavish on this movie. It grabs you from the word go and never lets up. It’s absolutely exhiliratingly debauched and I loved the hell out of it. All I can do at this point is tell you one more time  to rush right out and see it. But there’s no need for that because you already have. Right?

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