“I still hate that I ruined my underwear for you.” —Nicolas Cage, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans
When it was announced at Cannes that Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage were planning a remake of Abel Ferrara’s notorious 1992 provocation Bad Lieutenant, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in having two seemingly incompatible responses: 1) “That’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.” 2) “Of course. What else would Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage do together?” As exciting as the prospect was—and the loveably unwieldy title Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans heightened that excitement all the more—I was nonetheless slightly wary of the final result. For a start, the Ferrara film was perfectly fine left alone (and Ferrara felt the same way). It was anchored into the particulars of pre-Giuliani New York City, Ferrara’s lapsed Catholicism, and the reemergence of Harvey Keitel as a great, fearless screen actor. But given the certainty that Herzog, Cage, and screenwriter William Finkelstein would re-imagine it completely—which they inarguably have—the deeper concern was whether the film would be another Snakes On A Plane, a pre-fab cult classic that would thrive as an Internet meme, but seem inauthentic in the real world.
The well-circulated trailer relieved some doubts, with a major caveat that its compact two and a half minutes of overheated highlights may be more of a cult item than the 122-minute sprawl of the actual movie, which found a much more limited audience. Truth be told, Bad Lieutenant: POCNO is something of a lark, an opportunity for Herzog to thumb his nose at genre convention (and fuck around with goofy visual conceits like “iguana-cam”) and for Cage to reach a new stratosphere of over-the-top. Though there’s a legitimate attempt to engage with New Orleans post-Katrina, the tone is one of fevered camp, as Cage improvises eccentric line-readings and wild gesticulations, while Herzog all but openly ridicules the strictures of the police procedural—at least when he isn’t actively bored by them.
Herzog claims he’s never seen the Ferrara film, and given his less-than-voracious moviegoing habits, it’s easy enough to take him at his word. But even though Bad Lieutenant: POCNO could be called a remake in name only, its similarities and points of departure from the original are a telling indication of where Herzog’s priorities lie. Cage’s Terence McDonagh shares many bad habits with Keitel in the Ferrara version: Both routinely plunder property rooms and crime scenes to score drugs, both use the badge to shake down women for sexual favors, both have a gambling problem that snowballs well beyond their means as the film progresses, and both are bleary-eyed and sleepless as they juggle the demands of a big case while feeding their spiraling addictions. And both, when they hit bottom, experience a miraculous redemption that perhaps comes directly from the heavens, or at least seems dictated by God’s infinite, improbable grace.
Superficially, it may sound like the two films have a lot in common; indeed, you can imagine the two cops happily trading stories while smoking crack. Yet the remake-in-name-only label sticks, because the soul of Ferrara’s film has been extracted so completely that Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant could have changed titles without many being wise to it. Leaving aside the radical differences in tone, Keitel’s journey in Bad Lieutenant is tied closely to his investigation of a nun who’s gang-raped, yet forgives her attackers, an act so incomprehensible to Keitel that it forces him to confront his own lapsed faith. By contrast, the plot in Bad Lieutenant: POCNO, about the drug-related murder of Senegalese immigrants, serves as little more than the burner under Cage’s ass, and it’s resolved with an indifference somewhere between irony and contempt. Herzog and company not only removed all traces of Catholicism from the Bad Lieutenant franchise, they deflate the grave seriousness of Ferrara’s film. If Herzog intended to comment at all on the original—and I don’t think he did—he’d be making a colossal joke at its expense.
The bit of business about Terence’s underwear bookends the film, which says everything about the irreverent silliness of the whole enterprise. The first scene finds Terence and his partner (an out-crazied Val Kilmer) joking over a prisoner trapped in a cell and neck-deep in rising Katrina floodwater, begging for release. Terence eventually makes the plunge to rescue him, but first asks the victim why he should ruin a $55 pair of Swiss cotton underpants on his account. He gets a promotion and a medal of valor for his troubles, but he’s also injured and beset by severe back pain that predictably adds a Vicodin addiction on top of his other vices (crack, marijuana, cocaine, rough trade). When a Senegalese drug dealer is murdered, along with his wife and children, Terence suspects a lone kingpin (Xzibit) might be responsible. But his investigative tactics get him in trouble with Internal Affairs. Like, say, cutting off an elderly woman’s oxygen supply to get some info on a missing eyewitness:
Nicolas Cage catches a lot of flak, much of it deserved, for squandering his talent on vacuous Jerry Bruckheimer productions and just-plain-foolhardy ventures like The Wicker Man, and his ostentatious style has won him more mockery than admiration of late. But I’ve always had a soft spot for hammy, late-period Cage, just like I have a soft spot for hammy, late-period Al Pacino, whose sublime preening livened up a couple of New Cult Canon entries in The Devil’s Advocate and Glengarry Glen Ross. I’d submit the spectacularly overheated scene above as Exhibit A in any argument for Cage’s merits, because he brings so much more to it than could possibly be suggested on the page. (Though if he’s responsible, kudos to Finkelstein for letting Cage castigate an old woman and her caretaker with the immortal line “You’re the fucking reason this country’s going down the drain!”) A few of my favorite touches: Cage appearing from behind the door, shaving with an electric razor, which projects an odd menace while suggesting how long he’s gone without sleeping or bathing; the four times he slaps the nurse’s hand (and the scolding, almost motherly way he does it) whenever she reaches for the oxygen line; and the way he works himself into a lather the longer he’s in the room. You’d expect common decency would shame him into apologizing for going Jack Bauer on a little old lady, but he just gets madder and madder and madder.
As for Herzog, he seems perfectly content just to sit back and take in the sights. Among a filmography that includes the likes of Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, The Mystery Of Kaspar Hauser, and the recent Rescue Dawn, Bad Lieutenant: POCNO stands out for his conspicuous lack of investment in the story. He’d never done a genre film before, and he doesn’t have much interest in style or pulp momentum; at its worst, the film plods through the obligatory scenes that keep the plot moving, and entire characters (like Kilmer’s gruff cop or Eva Mendes’ hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold) don’t inch many degrees past stock. Yet his trademark curiosity—and his way with volatile leading men—is ever-present, whether he’s tweaking genre expectations, soaking in local color (like Senegalese funeral rites, for one), or just plain fucking around. If it wasn’t obvious enough already, Herzog’s boredom with the standard cop stuff becomes hilariously clear in this scene, when he shifts to the perspective of a hallucinated iguana:
For those who have seen Bad Lieutenant: POCNO—the rest are hereby advised to bail on this final paragraph—what do you make of the hasty, out-of-the-blue, super-happy ending? It looked like Terence was on a collision course where his gambling habits, internal-affairs problems, and shaky investigation were going to blow up in his face, but they all get resolved, one after another, and our troubled lieutenant emerges once more as captain and expectant father. (If not entirely reformed as sexual shakedown artist.) Is this real or a dream? Is Herzog being serious, or does this sequence, as I believe, go hand-in-glove with his ironic, dismissive twist on the procedural? Whatever the case, it will almost certainly frustrate viewers who expect the standard payoff—while of course delighting cultists with the way it breaks the rules. Given his career-long obsession with man vs. nature, Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant could be seen as a movie about man vs. his own nature; in light of his decision to take on this wonderfully bizarre undertaking in the first place, Herzog plays against his own nature in kind.
April 29: The Descent
May 13: Sátántangó
May 27: Mr. Brooks