What do I think about when I hear the words ‘bad lieutenant’? Harvey Keitel as a corrupt cop, taking drugs, extorting lewd sexual acts from prostitutes, gambling badly, getting in trouble with the mob and shooting his car radio. All whilst investigating a crime. Abel Ferrara’s fairly low budget 1992 indie flick Bad Lieutenant may not have been a great film, hell it may not even have been a particularly watchable one – but it was still a pretty powerful movie. It was a brutal exercise in excess and self-destruction, shrouding a desperate journey towards 11th hour redemption. Some admire Ferrara’s work, fewer still would say his movies were actually enjoyable (well, except maybe King of New York) though, and yet I doubt that anybody would suggest that they should ever be remade. It would be like... well, it would be like remaking a Werner Herzog movie.
So when Herzog announced that he was doing a thinly veiled remake of Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, rather oddly renamed: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, many were more than a little confused, and some were downright sceptical. The German indie director has been making movies for decades, but his more recent, English-language efforts have gathered him a broader international audience, and thus wider acclaim. Grizzly Man was a brutal examination of man’s naivety towards nature, and Rescue Dawn was a harrowing POW tale starring Christian Bale (looking almost as malnourished as in The Machinist). It remained a mystery why such a strikingly unique auteur would tackle a subject that had not only been dealt with already, but been dealt with in a relentlessly uncompromising fashion by an equally acclaimed, equally art-house counterpart less than two decades earlier. Still, he chose the movie, and picked none other than Nicolas Cage – who hasn’t given a quality performance commensurate with his capabilities in over 10 years – to fill the boots of Harvey Keitel, the man who originally brought the character of the Bad Lieutenant to life with arguably the most powerful performance of his career. So has Herzog finally cashed-in and submitted to the power of the Hollywood studios and their omnipotent producers? Or has he managed to offer a fresh take on the material, and bring out of Cage a performance that fans have been waiting over a decade for?
Terrence McDonough is a corrupt cop, who – in a random act of kindness – receives a spinal injury that leaves him reliant on painkillers. Six months later and he is not only addicted to Vicodin, but also Cocaine – and he’s happy to dabble with just about any drug he comes across. He’s a degenerate gambler too, indebted to some dangerous loan sharks. His high class prostitute girlfriend gets him into yet further trouble – this time with the mob – and the murder investigation he is running also sees him getting involved with the prime suspect, a drug dealer named Big Faith. With internal affairs nipping at his heels, his own alcoholic ex-cop father on his back, his girlfriend requiring his protection, and several pretty nasty individuals wishing him harm, the odds are stacked against him. Will he be able to dig himself out of this self-made pit, or will he just bury himself deeper?
Abel Ferrara has been quoted as stating that he has a fair amount of animosity towards all those involved with remaking his 1992 film. Conversely, Werner Herzog has commented that, not only has he never seen that first film, but he does not even know who Ferrara is. Despite these conflicting statements, the reality is that there is no way that the filmmakers involved in Port of Call – New Orleans were unaware of the original movie. No way. Perhaps Herzog was naively oblivious to it all, but whoever wrote the script must have seen it – without a shadow of a doubt. This new movie is not only about a similarly corrupt cop: it’s about a lieutenant who gets up to almost all of the same stuff. He sits in his cop car snorting drugs, extorts sex acts (and crack) out of people on the street, makes bets upon bets to try and get him out of a hole with the bookmakers, and gets into trouble with the mob – all during a police investigation. Oh, and did I mention that both characters were totally self-destructing? Seriously, if you watch both movies (within a few months of one another!) you will notice some unquestionably comparable themes, storylines and scenes. Herzog says it’s the name that caused the most damage, as calling it ‘Bad Lieutenant’ – at the Studio’s behest – confused audiences. But even without the title (which is unnecessarily lengthened) the similarities are too jarring to avoid mention.
So what makes this remake (sorry, I’m going to have to call it remake from now on) worth watching? Well, even if the eventful life-story we are watching seems familiar, it belongs to a completely new individual. And whilst Harvey Keitel may still epitomise the ‘bad lieutenant’ to me, Nicolas Cage brings us a whole different animal, and offers up his best performance in years. Hell, some may even argue that this could be his best performance ever, even if I still can’t get his harrowing, Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas persona out of my head.
He brings to the character not only his trademark (and much missed) wacky, outlanding Cage-esque behaviour (think Wild at Heart, The Rock, Face/Off) but also some new, added tones that perfectly suit the role. The first is that of the late Klaus Kinski, an actor and long-time Herzog collaborator – Cage here sporting an almost hunchback gait and a self-destructive twinge, both reminiscent of Kinski’s best roles. The second is Hugh Laurie’s House – a pill-popping, vicodin-addicted genius, with a limp. And the third, and arguably most important ingredient is pure Jimmy Stewart (Vertigo, Rear Window). Although it takes him about half of the movie to kick into full stride, Cage masticates his Southern-drawl-twinged words as if he in pure Stewart style, and his performance here has frequently been quoted as ‘James Stewart on Cocaine’ which pretty-much sums it up. He is simply fantastic, and it’s a massive breath of fresh air – akin to DeNiro or Pacino pulling out a performance comparable to that in Heat, after over a decade of slumming it. It’s totally awesome to behold. Nicolas Cage is back.
This is all fantastic news for this production, as its Cage’s performance that carries the whole movie. Sure, the supporting cast are all on good form – Val Kilmer doesn’t do much but it’s still nice to see him pop up as Cage’s cop partner; Eva Mendes continues her reign as one of the most beautiful actresses in the world – thankfully also being able to act as well, as shown here where she plays Cage’s prostitute girlfriend; rapper Xzibit is convincingly good as the drug dealer Big Faith; Fairuza Balk is still the go-to-girl for grungy, trailer-trash dirty-pixie performances (American History X, Things to do in Denver when you’re Dead); and character actor (and long time Herzog collaborator) Brad ‘Deadwood’ Dourif is on good form as Cage’s bookie. As much as they are all enjoyable in their various roles, it’s really still a one-man movie, or at least a one-performance movie, as Cage should be the reason why you see this movie and, even if he isn’t, his performance will probably remain the biggest reason why you will likely not be disappointed by the end flick.
Don’t get me wrong, Werner Herzog has crafted a typically off-beat cop drama here, complete with wild and wonderful characters (and performances), misleading narrative and plenty of crazy imagery going on. Unfortunately he can only do so much with what is, essentially, quite a familiar and – arguably – clichéd story. On the plus side, his ‘take’ on the material includes a much more palatable lead anti-hero, whose behaviour is often even somewhat justified, and who you genuinely believe is capable of redemption. I know we have to thank Cage for this as much as Herzog, but they have brought us a character that we can actually root for. He also has some fantastic scenes, and some brilliant imagery – his ‘soul dancing’ sequence is brilliant, and he has plenty of trademark animal’s-eye shots (iguanas, fish, sharks and crocs) which all add no end to the colourful style. And the decision to set the movie in post-Katrina New Orleans was a very clever move, offering up an authentic yet original backdrop for the events – and a justification for the prevalence of corrupt criminal behaviour amidst all the chaos.
On the negative side, Herzog’s more ‘pleasant’ movie is subsequently also less powerful; less hard-hitting. It’s only a lesson in self-destruction because of Cage’s fantastic contribution – without him, this would be nothing truly revealing, particularly for a cinemagoing public who have become desensitised to many of these kinds of scenes of violence or drug-taking over the last quarter-Century. Herzog’s ‘bad’ lieutenant is less uncompromisingly bad and more misguided, a lost soul who is constantly fighting to keep his head above water. As such he often dips into the usual ‘maverick cop’ caricature that has become so prevalent in cop movies over the years. Aside from his more ‘pleasant’ take on the material, Herzog’s style of improvised dialogue and almost random scenes can occasionally be its own downfall – with many scenes simply going nowhere, and not quite fitting in with the rest of it. Still, maybe you could just put this down to his standard ‘dream-like’ impressionist vision, which he generally brings to most of his productions.
Bad Lieutenant is actually a good movie. It may not be a great one, and it may not be remembered for anything more than being Nicolas Cage’s comeback vehicle, but that is not necessarily a bad thing – for Cage’s performance towers above everything else about this production, and arguably justifies its entire existence (given that remakes, in any shape or form, are generally quite disrespectful). Don’t expect this to be a shocking movie, or a real boundary-pusher. Don’t even expect the eponymous central character to be all that bad (he’s certainly not as bad as Denzel Washington’s equally powerhouse Training Day cop). Just expect to see Nicolas Cage back after a decade of wasting his talent on frivolous, effects-laden, family-friendly action-adventures. And if you enjoy anything else about this occasionally predictable, occasionally suspenseful offbeat cop drama then that’s just a bonus. Though the movie without him would probably just about get a 7/10 from me, Cage alone brings the score up by at least a point and makes it a recommended watch.
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