Wednesday, September 16, 2009


(Special Presentations)
(USA, 2009, 122 minutes)
Written by: William Finkelstein
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Cast: Nicholas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Brad Dourif, Jennifer Coolidge, Xzibit

When it was announced that Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” would not only be remade, but would star Nicholas Cage in the Harvey Keitel role, the message boards ignited with usual AICN-led charge of Hollywood’s creative dearth, Cage-as-box-office-poison, and various misspellings of the word lieutenant. But Ferrara’s own reaction was the most incendiary: “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they're all in the same streetcar, and it blows up”. (I somehow doubt Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman forwarded similar sentiments when he offered his own take on “Body Snatchers”).

Reception softened (somewhat) when Werner Herzog signed to direct. The very idea that the iconoclastic German director would take on a remake with a big-name Hollywood actor wasn’t such of a reach, really: he’d already done the straight-up Vietnam drama “Rescue Dawn” with Christian Bale, which was a fictionalized revisit to a subject from one of his own documentaries.

Turns out that his “Bad Lieutenant” is not a remake after all. It’s certainly not a sequel. Nor is it the audience-friendly police yarn the advance advertising would have you believe.

Terrence McDonagh (Cage) is a hard-wired police sergeant in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. When he risks drowning to save an inmate trapped in a literal watery prison, despite the protests of his partner Pruit (Kilmer), his heroic act gets earns a promotion to lieutenant, and with it a back injury that gets him hooked on prescription pain medication.

When not investigating the murder of a family of Senegalese drug dealers, McDonagh idles away afternoons with his hooker girlfriend Franke (Mendes), who has access to some deep pockets, which is just the thing he needs to pay off his gambling debts to his bookie (Dourif).

So far, sounds like pretty standard cop fare, right? The cheap titles, dinky synth score, and murky, grainy stock (no offense to DOP Peter Zeitlinger) would almost have you believe the management had mistakenly threaded up a lost Golan-Globus/Cannon-Films potboiler circa the Reagan-era...

Weeeeell, Herzog has other plans, letting Act One play out according to the Robert McKee playbook (the screenplay is credited to William Finkelstein, Emmy-winner for such episodic TV procedurals like “L.A. Law” and “Law And Order”) before chucking convention and shifting modes into a chain of increasingly baroque sequences that will either send you pounding the manager’s desk for a refund or glued to your seat giddily anticipating the next demented turn.

As we move into Act Two, the capture of prime suspect Big Fate (Xzibit) takes a back seat as McDonagh falls further down the addiction rabbit hole—prompting him to steal from the evidence locker, shake down locals for drugs, and threaten a college football prodigy to take a dive. And then the iguanas make the first of their appearances, to the strains of Ray Charles’ “Please Release Me”, which may or may not be a hallucination…ditto the break dancing spirit of a slain drug dealer.

Suffice to say, this is one batshit insane experience--either a post-modern stunt secretly co-conspired with Ferrara to deliver the biggest “screw you” to anyone who would dare suggest art-house-royalty would even consider slumming in a potential franchise; or, an operatic indictment of corrupt American authority post-Katrina (evidence tampering, the denial of civil rights, forced confessions); or dare-I-suggest something entirely new...?

McDonagh is the child of an alcoholic—his ex-cop father and new wife (Coolidge) are losing their battle with the bottle—offering a glimmer of insight as to his fall from grace. But Herzog doesn’t sentimentalize or judge his behavior—the tone is oddly celebratory of McDonagh’s unbridled indulgence, as if the director sees him as a force of masculine bravado ala the late Klaus Kinski's Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre all-but-extinct from modern movie screens (but living well on cable, thankyouverymuch, thanks to series like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad"). Perversely, Cage’s “out there” performance manages to anchor the film in “unreliable narrator” territory, and one could make the case that he’s channeling Kinski at every turn out of reverence for his director—if we weren’t already familiar with the bop-eyed/cackling/lurching-around-like-Dwight-Fry-in-a-Kabuki-Theatre-production shtick he’s been peddling since “Vampire’s Kiss”.

By all accounts, "Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans" marked a successful collaboration between the mad-German-visionary and the fallen-A-lister-in-need-of-redemption, one that bodes well for future partnerships. Unlike the director's former favorite leading man, Cage kept his tantrums onscreen, and Herzog wasn't moved to pull a gun.

Some moviegoers, on the other hand, might feel otherwise…

©Robert J. Lewis 2009