Saturday, January 23, 2010
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Werner Herzog’s awkwardly titled new film The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans might stand as one of the most interestingly bold choices ever made by a legendary filmmaker. The film, which is full of Big Easy heavies and a ravaged post-Katrina landscape, could be described as a shameless b-movie, but that doesn’t really do it justice. Think of it more as one of those mid-eighties cop movies starring Gary Busey if it had been made by the world’s most prominent art house director…oh yeah, on drugs. (That little post-script might as well be tacked on to every description of this film.) Plenty of directors are willing to touch a toe into the tepid water that is exploitation, but Herzog, never one for doing anything half-assed, dives in headfirst, filling his movie with hookers, dead alligators, mobsters, hallucinatory iguanas, and, weirdest of all, Nicholas Cage. In the process, he finds a way to inject some new life into the “burnt-out cop” movie while simultaneously not forsaking one ounce of his trademark eccentricity. Whether you like the movie hinges almost entirely on whether you’re able to embrace its particular brand of insanity, but if you are, then The Bad Lieutenant proves to be one of the most rewarding and downright fun movies of ‘09.
Nic Cage stars as Terrance McDonagh, a New Orleans detective who, in the aftermath of Katrina, saves a convict from drowning in a flooded prison. His act of heroism earns him a promotion to Lieutenant, but it also leaves him with chronic back pain that leads to a mounting number of drug habits—both legal and otherwise. Just as he’s really starting to spin out of control, Terrance gets put in charge of investigating the execution-style homicide of a family of immigrants. In typical Herzogian fashion, McDonagh becomes absolutely fixated on solving the case—that is, of course, when he’s not too busy raiding the police evidence room for heroin or shaking down club kids for coke. While Terrance’s search for answers in the case leads him to a local drug dealer called “Big Fate,”(Xzibit) he also becomes entangled with a group of would-be mafiosos while trying to protect his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) from a particularly unpleasant brand of customer.
Herzog shoots this all in the same kind of straightforward, low-budget style as he did Rescue Dawn. Some critics have complained about this, as though in order to really appreciate the fact that Terrance is snorting enough drugs to topple an elephant we need a shakier camera and some quicker pans. This, of course, has never been Herzog’s M.O. Even his grander films like Fitzcarraldo are relatively unadventurous in their visual stylings. He’s a guy much more concerned with just documenting the spectacle going on in the scene than he is with trying to enhance it with elaborate camera moves. That being said, The Bad Lieutenant does have some tricks up its sleeve. On a few occasions where Terrance is really flying high, Herzog switches to what looks like 8mm film to get a real feeling of detachment, and there’s even a bizarre shot sequence where the camera seems to ride on the back of an alligator as it waddles into the swamp. This is only one of dozens of shots in the film that depict the local wildlife (someone should write a book about how animals and insects function in the work of directors like Herzog and Luis Bunuel), from snakes and fish to imaginary lizards, the last of which makes for the film’s most absurdly hilarious scene when Terrance offhandedly complains “what the fuck are these iguanas doing on my coffee table?” to some fellow cops, as though it’s the most normal thing in the world.
Beyond these little touches, Herzog’s style here is relatively minimalist considering the material. This is all for the better, as his laissez-faire approach lets us sit back and really soak up the glorious insanity of Cage’s lead performance, which Matty Robinson of the Filmspotting podcast more than appropriately referred to as “a big bag of crazy.” Cage is in his full-on manic mode here, devouring scenery in a way that would have made Klaus Kinski proud. The guy gets a lot of grief, and he probably deserves most of it, but even I can admit that there is not one other actor in the world of such a high standing that would have been willing to tackle this kind of a role. For what it’s worth, there also might not be a single actor in Hollywood better at playing intoxicated, or at somehow ingratiating himself to the audience in the process. When Cage isn’t slurring his way through a scene, he’s bouncing off the walls like a madman and speaking in a rat-a-tat fashion that sounds like a mix of a 1920s news reporter and someone with a broken jaw. He switches between the two in a way that borders on confusing, but this mercurial quality is only one more part of what makes his delivery so fascinating. Still, Cage’s real achievement here, beyond affecting some really hilarious mannerisms and facial tics, is in the way he manages to make us believe in Terrance and root for him no matter how many despicable things he does. This is a guy who’s willing to pull guns on senior citizens and blatantly break the law in just about every way possible, but we still believe that there is a method to his more than considerable madness. That alone is an award-worthy achievement.
In the final analysis, this movie belongs more to Cage, whose performance alone is enough to warrant repeat viewings, than it does to Herzog. But Herzog still makes some truly wise decisions in his approach here. Unlike so many directors, he always knows exactly what kind of movie he’s making. He lets the material speak for itself, and beyond throwing in a few little Herzogian touches here and there, he’s not going out of his way to put too much of an authorial stamp on the film. This is disappointing at first, but then a bit comforting: if Herzog had filled The Bad Lieutenant with dwarfs, extended takes of chickens, or other evidence of his classic preoccupations, it would have been sure proof that he’d started to become a parody of himself. But he doesn’t. He’s restrained enough to let the movie’s strengths, particularly its bizarre brand of humor—this is, at its heart, comedy—be its biggest statement.
I’ll close with this: descriptions and reviews of this movie have all stressed just how over the top and insane it is. With this in mind, I was convinced going in that I would inevitably be a bit disappointed with the crazy factor of it, if only because it had been pushed so hard by every critic in the country. Suffice to say, The Bad Lieutenant manages to live up to the hype to be every bit it as mind-blowingly gonzo as you would hope it to be. And that just might be one of the most oddly significant achievements in any film this year.