Tuesday, 11 May 2010


The title is the oddest thing about The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (henceforth BL: POCNO), because apart from its extreme ungainliness, it locks the film into being considered as a remake/sequel/hommage to Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant, and a film which otherwise is intriguing enough on its own suffers by comparison with the original. Herzog has tried to say he knew nothing of the original, but even if you put it down to the screenplay, and assume the subject would have never come up in development, and Herzog would never have evinced any curiosity, one of the credited producers on BL: POCNO is Edward R Pressman, who has been promoted from just plain Ed Pressman since he produced the original Ferrara film, something it's unlikely (especially given the back stories of most Ferrara films) to have forgotten (if you think I'm kidding, read this interview with Ferrara, maybe the best director interview ever!) I saw the film last fall in the London Film Festival, and perhaps the delay in its opening is down to some confusion about just how to market it to the public.

Ferrara's film was one of redemption, in a specifically Catholic and New York context. Harvey Keitel's Lieutenant was a family man, drug-addicted corrupt and out of control, when he meets a nun who has been raped and won't identify her assailants, because she forgives them. His shame is that of the schoolboy caught in the confessional, but its enactment is far more serious. In some ways, Bad Lieutenant was a sequel to Ferrara's Ms .45: Angel Of Vengeance, in which a mute rape victim goes Death Wish on her attackers and then on men in general; the late Zoe Lund, who collaborated on the Bad Lieutenant screenplay, played (as Zoe Tamerlis) the victim, who at one point disguised herself as a nun (she also had a bit as a hooker in Bad Lieutenant).

By contrast, Nicholas Cage's cop is more ambiguous, as befits perhaps the difference between New Orleans and New York. There is a sort of genial corruption implicit in the police department, his girlfriend (Eva Mendes) is a high-end hooker with a bit of a drug problem, his father's an alcoholic ex-cop. But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's floods, Cage's Lieutenant McDonagh rescues a criminal about to drown in his cell, and in the process, injures his back. When he rejoins the force, he's addicted to painkillers, and using other drugs to counter their effects. He's also in deep debt to his bookie, and eventually will need cash to bail himself out of trouble he got into getting Mendes out of. Meanwhile, he's investigating the murder of an entire family of Haitians, in a drug dealing dispute with a gangster known as Big Fate. So maybe, in a heavy-handed way, we can see Cage as battling against Big Fate, and trying to get what he really wants, a family. Families are an important part of this film. Herzog's characters are often mad dreamers, but here Cage's madness appears to stem from thinking he can have a real family of his own. His boy witness who escapes is a surrogate son for him and Mendes, he has his father, his step-mother, even his father's dog trying to draw him back into the normal world, but that world is not as much normal as an American comedy nightmare.

Unlike the original, the plot gets more and more complicated, as Cage uses his spiralling fall from grace as a weapon to get justice, as it were, for the murder victims, and to get himself out of the multiple traps he's fallen into. There was no element of 'solving' crime involved in the original, so this makes an almost diametrically opposed scenariio, yet it fits Herzog's mad dreamers, who are always guys insanely trying to make their crazy plans work. In this he gets a bravura performance of sorts from Cage, who shuffles though much of the film as if he's watched Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu, rather than any of his other Herzog roles, where he is the quintessence of the Herzog madman. Admirers of Herzog will find much to admire, or at least relate to, not least his Oliver Stone-like penchant for inserting lizards (and alligators) into odd places and at odd times. If you're inclined, you could see it as a way of saying the Hurricane has ripped up the swamp, and moved it back into the city, but if you're not then you might consider the whole backdropping of Katrina a lost opportunity. It is also a very funny film, which eventually turns Cage into a 'Not So Bad' Lieutentant. Cage can work the very funny lines in the script – some excellent writing by William Finklestein-- for all they are worth, though occasionally he starts mugging, as if Klaus Kinski were being played by Adam Sandler on Vicodin. At one point he pulls an oxygen mask off an elderly wealthy white woman, trying to force information from her, and as he's chased away he says 'you're the kind of people who are ruining this county!' Then he scuttles way, like one of Herzog's iguanas.

Thus, the scene in the original, where Harvey Keitel abuses two Jersey girls in a traffic stop, is transmuted in BL:POCNO into one where Cage, spotting a young couple doing drugs in a night club parking lot, braces them, intending to take the drugs, and winds up having wild sex with the girl in front of her boyfriend. It's a director's-eye catching performance by Katie Chonacas, but rather than scaring us, it leaves us feeling more like voyeurs. You almost expect Cage to send flowers the next day. Similarly, the relationship with his bookie is not the one filled with menace that Keitel's was, where the bookie is like the carnival-barker for his own trip to Hell, but more like a family thing, where the bookie is a relative irritated by Cage's inability to fix a ticket. Plus, in the earlier film, Keitel's bets on the baseball Mets eventually come through, as if by divine intervention; the figure of ex-Met Darryl Strawberry, now playing against them for the Dodgers and himself a figure fallen through drugs, adds an element of salvation/damnation that the current film's gambling scenario lacks. In BL: POCNO, the American footballer supposedly shaving points for Cage (not an easy thing to do in gridiron) does the honourable thing, but Cage wins the bet anyway. Consider the contrast between Mendes' whore-with-the-heart-of-gold and Lund's hooker from the original (see left), another ruthless beacon of descent. Female characters have never been one of Herzog's strongpoints, but when Abel Ferrara's women carry depth and character and emotion, and yours don't, you're in trouble. In fairness, the women who are in actual familiar situations get a break from Herzog, but even with Cage's stepmom, there's his temptation to see her as titillation.

Again, it's not totally fair to be reviewing BL:POCNO for not being another film, but that's what its title invites, and its situations suggest. On its own merits, I have to say I like the idea that film noir can be played forblackish humour, and certainly New Orleans is the place to try that. But I'm not sure that BL: POCNO can get tragic enough to wrap itself in the shadowy cloak of noir. It would certainly benefit by not being compared to Ferrara and Keitel's vision of New York's darkness, one that allows no humour, one that asks for no affection for its lead character. Apparently, the idea was for a series of Bad Lieutenant films, each set in a different port of call with a different director. I'm not sure how far that idea could go, not least because the films are being done all the time and don't need the referencing. Herzog's version is entertaining, especially if you can't get enough of Cage, but not nearly as bad as it ought to be.

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