Best of 2009 – The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans

In 1992, Abel Ferrara release his magnum opus Bad Lieutenant, a film featuring Harvey Keitel’s best performance and a gritty style of film making that was reminiscent of a 70s crime thriller that might have been directed by Scorsese or Lumet; It could actually be argued that Ferrara’s film went further in terms of realism than either director had ever attempted in the genre. The film was also a target of controversy with shocking material including a brutal scene involving a young nun being raped as well as a scene of male nudity; it was enough for the film to garner the dreaded NC-17 rating. But the film was masterfully done, presenting a  terrifyingly realistic portrait of man being consumed with guilt by his many vices.  The film also contained an ending that left audiences in full shock as the protagonist makes a powerful decision with the lives of two rapists wanted by the police. Some found the decision preposterous, and even down right appalling; The ending only reinforced my opinion that the Ferrara’s film might have been one of the most thought provoking and challenging film, not just in it’s genre, but of any film I’ve ever seen.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when it was announced that a remake was in the works, I was skeptical. But like many skeptics, I was silenced when Werner Herzog was announced as the director taking on the huge task. Part of me thought the final product would be the biggest train wreck in cinematic history, but another thought it had potential to even best the original. I know it’s blasphemy to ever consider a remake to the original (especially to a great film like Ferraras’) but this wasn’t any average filmmaker. This is Werner Herzog. The German New Wave pioneer who might have made my personal favorite film of that movement if not of all of German cinema (his 1977 masterpiece Stroszek). Also a remake isn’t anything new for Herzog either; His 1979 remake of Nosferatu was nothing short of a masterpiece and in my opinion even better than the classic silent original.

My fascination over the film rose even more after Ferrara spoke out.

“I wish these [Herzog and remake people] die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up,” – Abel Ferrara

A comment that probably would have had any other director furious and ready with rebuttal to spark a childish back and fourth. Surprisingly, Herzog didn’t even know who Ferrara was and admitted that he hadn’t even seen the original. Herzog would later state his Bad Lieutenant wasn’t going to be a remake, but actually a whole different movie that shared the same name. That left me wondering how exactly different the two films were going? When I started watching, I realized that this wasn’t the same film at all.

First the location moved from the crime ridden streets of New York to the hurricane ravaged streets of New Orleans, and the on the edge main character looking for redemption, known only to us the Lieutenant, is now Terence McDonagh, a rather eccentric police officer with a bad drug problem, a hooker girlfriend (played by Eva Mendes) , a gambling problem and a case to solve. Unlike the Ferrara’s film, the case doesn’t involve the rape of a nun but rather a serious of murders committed from a drug king pin known only as Big Fate (played surprisingly well by rapper Xzibit). The film has an interesting beginning with McDonagh and his partner finding a prisoner trapped in a cell during a flood and on the verge of death. McDonagh ends up saving the man’s life but suffering from a back injury in the process. This leads to a doctor prescribing pain medication and thus an addiction forms from this.

From there we see the character’s relationship a with his hooker girlfriend Frankie, with his father and mother-in-law, and his bookie (played by Brad Dourif, reuniting with Herzog after their under-appreciated science fiction film The Wild Blue Yonder ) develop. The film takes a turn when McDonagh has to protect a witness of one of Big Fate’s massacres and the taking an even stranger turn as he and Frankie get in trouble with another gangster.

The plot might make the film come off as just another bad cop film that we are subjected to year after year, trying their hardest to be like the original Bad Lieutenant (ex: Training Day, Harsh Times etc.) and I would agree. The plot and script could have made this just another rudimentary exercise in the genre, but because Herzog is behind the material, we instead have an absurdist take on the genre that surprisingly works. We have the typical scenes that are expected from a cop film like a cop abusing his authority like asking for sexual favors, doing drugs with the “bad” guys, and the hard core interrogation scene. But instead of trying to aim for realism in a plot that is so cartoonish, Herzog embraces the campy aspects of the script. Unlike a film like this year’s Taken, we aren’t ever thinking “wow this would never happen in real life.” Here we see scenes like McDonagh pulling his gun out on two old women or reciting his “Nigger Elk” monologue while smoking his “lucky crack pipe” and we just go with it.

Herzog’s other touches shows like the already infamous iguana scene as well as a dance scene near the end that might have some thinking back to the dancing chickens in the end of Stroszek. It adds a strange surrealist touch that is very daring for a mainstream film; But what word better word describes Herzog than “daring.”By highlighting on the absurdity of the McDonagh’s situation and actions reminds us just how ridiculous this genre really is sometimes (even Ferrara’s film suffers from this when we see the Lieutenant blow his top and fire at his car radio).

But what is more daring than Herzog’s direction is the unforgettable performance by Nicolas Cage. Cage’s reputation for going over the top is well documented in many films this decade and has often been the subject of ridicule by many. But sometimes the material fails him rather than the other way around: take for example Alex Proyas’ Knowing, a film lauded by Roger Ebert but hated by almost every other critic this year. In other films, Nicolas Cage’s over the top performance sometimes helps give the film a sort of camp status, like with Neil LaBute’s undeniably misguided remake of The Wicker Man. Here Cage does go over the top, but because the film asks for him to be eccentric, his performance works. Its the type of performance that Nicolas Cage has mastered to perfection in other films like David Lynch’s underrated Wild at Heart or Robert Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss. It might not be the type of dramatic method acting that usually gets people’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one without merit. In many ways what Cage does in this film is just as worth of award praise as Sean Penn’s portrayal as Harvey Milk (not to mention a lot more entertaining to watch).

I don’t imagine this to get really winning any awards come the end of this month and don’t think this as highly as Herzog’s other great films; but there something fun seeing a great auteur exploring new grounds and seeing an actor back in full form.

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