Saturday, May 29, 2010

Review - The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans

Oh, what a joy it is that Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog have found each other. The project that has brought these individualistic talents together is a remake of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, but the new film is so different in style and tone it hardly seems appropriate to use the word 'remake', or a worthwhile exercise to compare the two. Both films focus on a corrupt, drug-taking cop, but that's where the similarities end. Ferrara's blistering 1992 film wallowed in depravity and Catholic guilt before offering the tortured protagonist a glimpse of redemption, but Herzog takes Cage in an entirely different direction. Their Bad Lieutenant – clumsily subtitled Port of Call: New Orleans – is a loopy, deranged riff on the same narrative from which Ferrara dredged up such anguish.

At the start of Herzog's film, Cage's Terence McDonagh is a sergeant in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina rages. When he and his laconic partner Stevie Pruitt (an under-utilised Val Kilmer) discover an inmate still trapped in a half-submerged prison, McDonagh makes the decision to jump in and rescue the desperate man, but not before they have weighed up the prospect of Terence ruining his $55 Swiss-cotton underwear in the process. Eventually, he jumps, and the result is a damaged spine that ensures he will be adding painkillers to his regular drug intake for the rest of the movie. For his bravery, McDonagh is promoted to lieutenant, but he is already caught inextricably in a downward spiral of vice.

In Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, the main character (he is never named) was given his shot at redemption when investigating the brutal rape of a nun. Here, McDonagh is tasked with solving the massacre of an immigrant family, with the finger of suspicion pointing towards local drug kingpin Big Fate (Alvin 'Xzibit' Joiner). McDonagh ropes in his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes) to help look after the sole witness, but this case is not the chief concern for Herzog or his screenwriter William M. Finkelstein. The slender plot is handled in a cursory, almost throwaway fashion (epitomised by the brilliant fashion in which said plot is wrapped up at the end), and instead the prime goal here is to push Nicolas Cage to new levels of eccentricity.

After too many bad movies, Cage has found a film perfectly suited to his talents and to a taste for over-the-top characterisation that has often been at odds with the generic projects he has tried to apply them to. Herzog creates an environment in which Cage can cut loose and prosper, and the result is often hilarious to watch. One scene in particular acts as the apotheosis of his character's madness. In a quiet nursing home, a sweaty and strung-out McDonagh appears behind a door, shaving his face with an electric razor, and stating: "Right now I'm working on about one and a half hours sleep over the past three days, and I'm trying to remain courteous, but I'm beginning to think that's getting in the way of my being effective." The two people he's threatening are old ladies, one of whom is in a wheelchair, and he doesn't think twice about holding a gun to their heads, or cutting off the infirm woman's oxygen supply until she gives him the information he needs. Not many actors could give this scene the kind of crazy comic energy that Cage injects into it, signing off at the end of the sequence with the classic line: "You’re the fucking reason this country’s going down the drain!"

Herzog prods his star throughout, pushing him ever further towards the edge of madness, but it's a much more light-hearted sense of insanity than that explored by Ferrara and Keitel in the original, even as the Bad Lieutenant performs awful acts. When Keitel stopped two girls in a car and subjected them to a verbal rape, the scene was appalling and difficult to watch, but when Cage has sex with the girlfriend of a guy he busts for carrying drugs, it's hard to not laugh. As bad as he may be, Cage makes it impossible to hate this lieutenant; he's just too much fun.

His director appears to be having a great deal of fun as well. Herzog shows little respect for the standard structure of the police procedural, and indeed, the flattest scenes in Bad Lieutenant are the ones in which he has to deal with pesky details such as the plot. The supporting characters never emerge as anything more than clichés, because Herzog isn't interested in them; he just wants to find surreal sights and sounds within the boundaries of the genre he finds himself in. So, we are treated to hallucinated iguanas ("What are these fucking iguanas doing on my coffee table?", "There ain't no iguana."), a meditation on whether fish dream, and a McDonagh ordering his cohorts to open fire on an already dead body because "his soul is still dancing."In truth, I could have perhaps done with more of these moments in a film that's undeniably overlong and slow in patches, but the moments we do have are good enough – and crazy enough – to be thankful for. Nicolas Cage has found his ideal director and Werner Herzog has found his ideal actor, and when their idiosyncratic impulses are working in perfect harmony, the results are irresistibly entertaining.