At this point, Werner Herzog stands in rarefied air, in the mix for every discussion of the “greatest living filmmaker,” and almost unquestionably the most influential living European filmmaker after some of the surviving members of the Nouvelle Vague, which made the announcement that he would be directing Nicolas Cage in a sort of-remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant even more perplexing. Thankfully, he is still Werner Herzog, and not only has he vastly improved on the original, but Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans is his greatest narrative film since Nosferatu in 1978 (and yes, I know that means I’m saying it’s better than Fitzcarraldo). This is a stunning, beautiful and darkly comedic look at post-Katrina New Orleans anchored by Nicolas Cage’s best performance in years. It’s also Herzog’s strangest film since Even Dwarfs Started Small, although that seems likely to change soon, with the David Lynch-produced(!) My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done already opening in New York and LA later this month.
Like Ferrara’s original, Bad Lieutenant tells the story of a cop who has gone over the edge, getting caught up in a web of drugs, gambling and prostitution as he tries to solve a brutal crime. Thankfully, the overblown post-Scorsese Catholic guilt of the original has been replaced by Herzog’s musings on good and evil and the destruction of New Orleans. Unlike Harvey Keitel’s nameless protagonist in the original, Cage’s Terrence McDonagh starts out as a hero (albeit a morally questionable one), injuring his back rescuing a prisoner during the Katrina. He’s promoted to lieutenant, but becomes and addict, first to pain killers, and eventually cocaine and heroin. He begins dating a prostitute named Frankie, played by Eva Mendes, who is the film’s biggest weak spot. Aside from simply not being a good actress, she has little chemistry with Cage, which should have been obvious from Ghost Rider, but something tells me Herzog never saw that disaster. After the murder of five Senegalese immigrants, the department begins to suspect a dealer named Big Fate, portrayed by rapper Xzibit, who is better than most rapper-turned-actors, but still doesn’t belong in a Herzog film. As his personal life spirals into a deeper and deeper Hell, Terrence’s methods on the case become more and more extreme, including a darkly comedic sequence in which he nearly tortures two old women and a beautifully lit moment in which he steals drugs from and has sex with a woman outside of a club. From here, things get kind of crazy. Suffice it to say, there are multiple sequences involving point of view shots from imagined iguanas, and Terrence actually says “shoot him again, his soul’s still dancing,” before the film goes on to show a dancing soul. Against the weirdness, Cage provides a brilliant center. Because he’s been in so many awful films in recent years (the recent stories about his tax woes seem to explain why), I think people tend to forget that he is a great actor in the right role. Few people can do manic as well as him, and while his performance here may not reach the stunning intensity of Klaus Kinski and Bruno S., the stars of most of Herzog’s best films, it is his best work since Adaptation. In his all-too-brief screen time, Val Kilmer again proves his comedic chops as Terrence’s equally manic, although more in control, sidekick. Otherwise, the acting isn’t exactly the film’s greatest strength.
In recent years, Herzog’s best films have been his documentaries. He always manages to find real people who fit the mold of the obsessive eccentrics in his films, and that trend peaked with Grizzly Man, my pick for this decade’s best documentary. Unfortunately, in recent years, his narrative features just haven’t been as good. His most recent, Rescue Dawn (based on his own documentary, Little Dieter Needs To Fly), struggled to break from the prison camp film formula, but Bad Lieutenant succeeds largely because of how completely it shatters the standard “cop-on-the-edge” film formula. There are poignant moments, but most of them result from the viewer’s own feelings about the city. Otherwise, everything about the film is completely so over-the-top and absurd, from Cage’s wild performance and the surreal hallucinations to the dialogue and the ridiculous title, it is all Herzog laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. Thankfully, interspaced with the weirdness are shots of the ruins of New Orleans, rendered better than any documentary has done so far. The beautiful New Orleans of old is in the background, but we never see the French quarter, and the only shots of the downtown come when Terrence visits Frankie in her hotel. Otherwise, this film takes place in the ninth ward and the other areas that still lie in ruin. Herzog sees the beauty in these places, but he also wants to show us the pure destructive forces of nature, and how we deal with their aftermath.
There are many questions to be asked here. What’s with the iguanas and why New Orleans were among the first to come to mind, but lurking behind all of them and essential to understanding the film is the question of Katrina. Why did it happen and how does Herzog see it? Thankfully, as with most questions on Herzog’s motives, this can basically be answered in one fantastic clip from Burden Of Dreams, Les Blanc’s classic documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xQyQnXrLb0. There’s no doubt in my mind that Herzog is a genius, and in terms of importance to the culture of cinema, he’s probably only below Godard among living filmmakers, so to see him do something this great is vital for film. If Hollywood is going to continue pumping out formula, than we need our masters to distill that formula into something great, and this is exactly what Herzog has done.
“Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans” is rated R for drug use and language throughout, some violence and sexuality.
Now Playing at the AMC Loews Boston Common 19, The Kendall Square Theater in Cambridge and the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline
Directed by Werner Herzog; written by William Finkelstein, based on the film Bad Lieutenant written by Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Abel Ferrara and Zoe Lund; director of photography, Peter Zeitlinger; edited by Joe Bini; original music by Mark Isham; production designer, Toby Corbett; produced by Stephen Belafonte, Nicolas Cage, Randall Emmett, Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky, Edward R. Pressman and John Thompson; released by First Look Pictures. Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes.
With: Nicolas Cage (Terence McDonagh), Eva Mendes (Frankie Donnenfield), Val Kilmer (Stevie Pruit), Xzibit (Big Fate), Jennifer Coolidge (Genevieve), Michael Shannon (Mundt) and Brad Dourif (Ned).