TIFF 09: THE BAD LIEUTENANT - PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS Review

So is Bad Lieutenant:  Port of Call New Orleans a remake, a sequel, or what? Parse it any way you like (and I shall attempt this) but it is a dynamite piece of satire and perhaps something more.  Werner Herzog, infamous for both his method and his madness, and one of the truly great Auteur filmmakers, tackles a straight up genre-script and puts his inevitable stamp on the proceedings but insists that it is simply separate film. The producers wanted to establish a franchise after buying the rights to the 1992 title and they indulged the German director by adding his own proposed title after a colon to form a hybrid (and lengthy) moniker for what is essentially a straightforward police procedural picture with many of the same plot-beats as the Abel Ferrara's catholic guilt drenched 'Scorsese-in-the-Sewer' original. Any other similarities are entirely co-incidental, as Herzog remains stoic that he has not seen the original, yet his movie tends to slyly (even if unconsciously) subvert all of the impact and substance of the original so as to lie 180 degrees in tone and message.


This is a movie of a director not known for commercial cinema making a genre movie insofar as it lets him colour in the margins. How do Iguana hallucinations and inquiries on the dream life of fishes factor in to solving a quintuple child homicide? Only Herzog can answer this, as he took the quasi-remake script from crime writer William M. Finkelstein and imbued it with his own delightful zaniness.  It it were not so damned entertaining, and loopy, it would be just another of many banal productions matching up big stars paychecks to mundane scripts that Millennium Films has been turning out for some years now (Righteous Kill, 88 Minutes,16 Blocks).


Upon rescuing an inmate trapped in his cell during the Katrina hurricanes - after a lament of the dirty water soiling his $55 underwear and floating the wager with his partner (and underused Val Kilmer) of how long the convict could survive cause a moments hesitation - sergeant Terrance McDonagh gets promoted to the eponymous Lieutenant, and hurts his back in the process. Requiring a steady supply of painkillers to maintain his job of active field duty, enhanced by stolen narcotics from the evidence room, his police career seems to be more of a dodge for access to drugs. Yet, for one reason or another his own incompetence (or is it simply audacity) tends to yield results finding suspects or fulfilling drug prescriptions at the local pharmacist. His methods cut through bureaucracy and red-tape in a way that suggest he has someone else, his absentee and quite young partner perhaps, do the paper work. He dates an upscale prostitute (his own Ghostrider co-star Eva Mendez) and places expensive football bets with his bookie (an always welcome Brad Dourif). But his gambling, theft and narcotic habits start to catch up with him during his latest investigation involving the murder of five immigrant children. At one point traveling around the city, McDonaugh has all of the narrative baggage in his car.: The witness he is trying to protect, his girlfriend who he has endangered by beating up on one of her clients (who has mob ties), and his father's Dog. He has a stressed but determined belief that he can keep all the plates in the air if he takes enough Vicoden and Heroin. He is not looking for redemption or saving, merely to continue his existence the drug roller coaster.


After something he calls the "bliss of evil" Herzog's collaboration with Nicholas Cage (perhaps his new Klaus Kinski shall they continue to work together) yields moments of unabashedly crazy charm which hearken back to Vampire's Kiss (or perhaps Wild at Heart) without descending into camp along the lines of the actor goofing off (Ghost Rider or The Wickerman remake - also a Millennium production). Cage delivers such angry energy in unpredictable bursts that in his own way, almost achieves that of Harvey Keitel's original Bad Lieutenant; that 1992 descent into extreme-method territory flirts with its camp itself if it not for Ferrara's film being more grounded. The difference is that Keitel's peformance is seriously unhinged, whereas Cage is simply chewing scenery. And scenery is chewed wonderfully. From lucky crack-pipes, to exaggerated out-of-the-blue laughter to cutting off the oxygen supply of lady in a wheel chairs and expounding on how people like her are why America is where it is. And it should be noted that the latter incident is in the guise of protecting a witness.


Serving his own unfathomable needs in a city gone to hell in a hand-basket, Nicholas Cage is well wedded to the auteur director's lexicon of driven eccentrics and marginalized mad-men. If you are looking for Herzog's first black comedy, hop in the police cruiser and ride along with the Bad Lieutenant. The film may not take itself very seriously or be interested in following the usual genre tropes, but it is always up for offering the strange and unusual places a life can go and the banal and indifferent cruelties of our world. It is closer to the spirit of the original than you think.

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