Friday December 4, 2009 at the Landmark Kendall Sq. Cinema, Cambridge, MA
Directed by Werner Herzog, starring Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Xzibit, Brad Dourif, Fairuza Balk and Vondie Curtis Hall.
I experienced some trepidation before seeing Werner Herzog’s … what shall we call it? Definitely not a sequel to Abel Ferrara’s BAD LIEUTENANT (1992), nor by Herzog’s account is it a remake, if only because he has never seen the earlier film. The term “re-imagining” has been batted around too often in the last decade, but that is what I was expected, possibly what I feared. What I was hoping for, and very nearly got, was a pure Herzog film.
The IMDB message boards for both Herzog’s and Ferrara’s versions offer multiple explanations of how this current film came to have the phrase “Bad Lieutenant” in the title. Most are probably false, and all are irrelevant. Had Herzog released his film as “Port of Call – New Orleans,” critics still would have mentioned Ferrara’s “Lieutenant” in their reviews, if only because both concern detectives addicted to drugs and gambling. Beyond that, they have little in common. Ferrara’s film ponders the Catholic doctrine of Forgiveness by challenging the audience with reprehensible characters on both sides of the law. It is vulgar and gritty and it makes you want to shower with bleach after you’ve seen it.
Herzog’s “Lieutenant” works more as a lampoon of the sort of film I was afraid this might turn out to be, with Nicholas Cage and the rest of a solid cast very much in on the gag. While investigating the murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants, the police come up with a list of suspects including a gangster named “G.” My eyes almost rolled out of my head when I heard this cliche, until Cage seemed to mirror my reaction as he briefed fellow officers. Was Lt. Terry McDonagh mocking G’s unoriginal nickname, or were Cage and Herzog mocking the conventions of a tired genre? I suspected the latter when McDonagh interrogates and elderly woman in a hilariously political incorrect riff on that traditional scene, but the ending really confirmed it for me. *** Spoiler Alert *** skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want part of the end ruined: the last time we see the police station, the scene is staged like a blatant parody of cop shows, with all the loose strands happily tied up with everything but a freeze-framed high 5.
Entertaining though this may be, it does not make for a pure Herzog movie. What does make it a pure Herzog movie, and what seems to have alienated many who prefer their cop movies from the “Lethal Weapon 4” mold, is his signature use of animals to reflect the randomness of nature and living. From a snake swimming through a flooded prison and a traffic accident caused by an alligator to a pair of iguanas whom only McDonagh can see, animals once again become symbols to be pondered and debated by nerds who love Herzog, or ignored and derided by those who prefer their movies literal and their morality messages spoon fed.
Maybe BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS should not have been called BAD LIEUTENANT, it’s mystery being so different from the earlier film. Maybe it should have been, since whether you love or hate either, both films turn the standard police drama inside out. But contrary to my initial reservations, there is no mistaking that this is a Werner Herzog movie.Tags: Brad Dourif, crime, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, New Orleans, Nicholas Cage, Vondie Curtis Hall, Werner Herzog, Xzibit