Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Not so much a remake as a reimagining, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (hereafter Lieutenant) – Werner Herzog’s take on Victor Argo’s Bad Lieutenant idea – is as bleakly comedic as anything the German director has produced thus far. Whereas Abel Ferrara’s Harvey Keitel led Bad Lieutenant (1992) is a classic tale of redemption from personal darkness, Herzog and lead Nicolas Cage instead revel in the depths of their Lieutenant’s depravity; together forming a character with few attractive qualities who still (somehow) manages to engender a perverted sense of audience sympathy.
Detective Terence McDonagh’s tale begins in the sweat soaked tropical climes of Miami (Florida) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In one of his sparsely scattered selfless acts McDonagh (Cage) defies his own natural inclination, and the urging of his partner Detective Stevie Pruit (an equally reptilian Val Kilmer), to jump into the rising waters of a flooded prison to rescue a trapped convict. It is no coincidence that this relatively ‘noble’ action leaves McDonagh with a chronic back injury requiring constant pain medication, as well as leading to his promotion to the titular Lieutenant. As the film rolls we are presented with a seemingly amoral cop who, although seeking to do his job, transgresses so many of the laws he’s sworn to uphold that he might as well be one of the criminals he spends his days chasing down. This is not just the run of the mill police rough housing and drug/money filching of the type so perfectly illustrated in brilliant HBO show The Wire. We’re talking sexual predation, physical violence against the weak and innocent, a hardened drug habit and more. Yet, despite his almost sociopathic lack of concern about the appropriateness of his actions, McDonagh remains, doggedly, on the case.
Comparisons of Cage to late Herzog muse Klaus Kinski (Aguirre: The Wrath of God; Nosferatu) are not without merit; what he lacks in intensity he makes up for in sheer nonchalance. [As an aside: any film that can make me put aside my illogically severe dislike of Nic Cage has got to have something pretty damn good going for it!] Though Cage may own the role of McDonagh – and he does: all weary, furrowed-brow-aggravation mashed with bouts of frenzied, drug induced mania – Lieutenant is a Herzog production through and through. The Director’s eccentric European hand can be seen all over this movie: from obvious signs such as cutaways to extended handheld documentary-like footage of various southern reptiles through to less easily defined aspects of the finished production such as the palpable tone of bemusement that pervades a film centring on the violent behaviour of amoral characters.
The supporting cast is filled out with an interesting array of choices (considering the director), including Eva Mendes (2 Fast 2 Furious; Ghost Rider) as Cage’s prostitute love interest Frankie, and West Coast rapper cum bit-part actor Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner (8 Mile; Derailed) as local drug kingpin Big Fate. Mendes in particular shines in her contrasting role – experiencing the the kind of character development you’d expect from the lead – and stands strong alongside veterans Val Kilmer as the crooked ex-partner, Tom Bower (Pollock; Crazy Heart) as Cage’s recovering alcoholic ex-cop father Pat McDonagh, and Brad Dourif (Dune; Lord of the Rings Trilogy) as McDonagh’s hard edged bookie Ned Schoenholtz.
Make no mistake: this film will cause many to feel uncomfortable, and fair enough – it earns it R18 rating. Ostensibly Lieutenant plays (successfully) on one level as a standard example of a sub-variety of Hollywood police procedural focussing on a maverick cop (a la the Dirty Harry franchise) but the director continually messes with genre conventions and audience expectations in his idiosyncratic way. So flippant feeling are McDonagh’s worst moments, and so thoroughly does Herzog dismiss his lead’s expected character arc that it seems the director is flat out daring the audience to indulge standard genre tropes and invest some hope of redemption in McDonagh. He goes as far as flinging us Bressonian moments of grace where McDonagh authentically connects with another character (e.g. the convict he saves or the relative of the murder victims whose case he is working) or does what might be considered the ‘right thing’ (e.g. stopping Detective Pruit from beating an uncooperative suspect) – except that Herzog systematically strips these moments and acts of any sense commendable motivation; making them seem, at best, simply expedient or random. Even the early possible justification for McDonagh’s cynicism – that his enduring back injury was caused whilst engaging in a good deed – doesn’t seem to fly when held against his general attitude and the other positive outcomes of this action.
It would seem that Herzog, wanting to engage this archetypal story for a more cynical day and age, completely retools Ferrara’s successful original. Translated from cold gritty streets of New York City to heat glazed roads and backwaters of Miami, the setting is the complete opposite in terms of aesthetic tone. The oppressive heat, the faded glory of Miami’s Scarface/Cocaine Cowboys heyday, and the region’s distinct reptilian populace all come to the fore in Herzog’s retelling; the latter creatures serving as a kind of repeating visual metaphor for McDonagh’s character – albeit served up in typically perplexing Herzogian manner. And whereas Keitel’s lieutenant traces a downward spiral from whence he reaches upward towards some kind of redemption, McDonagh begins Lieutenant plumbing immoral depths and doesn’t really progress except in terms outward circumstances – even though those closest to him seem to be slowly lifting their heads above water. And in this Herzog puts the lie to the one of the great Hollywood cinematic myths: the transformative power of catharsis. Herzog tells us – in a way reminiscent of the biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes – that good and bad events happen to good and bad people alike (however you might define these two poles) and that these external forces don’t necessarily bring about any significant internal change even if they often change outward circumstances. McDonagh’s life improves even as he remains unrepentantly driven by his basest instincts. Lieutenant, then, is an anti-moralising morality tale if ever I saw one, and damn if Herzog doesn’t tell it in style!
DVD Info + Special Features
This single disc region 4 release comes simply equipped with an English only soundtrack but with enhancement for the sight and hearing impaired. The Dolby Digital audio and full frame Widescreen transfer make for great viewing but the bigger the screen the better to take full advantage of the exquisite framing of regular Herzog DOP Peter Zeitlinger. Specials on this disc are limited to a range of on-set interviews with various cast and crew members. For the most part these act to highlight Herzog’s decidedly non-mainstream approach to filmmaking with many of the actors expressing both their respect for his filmmaking abilities as well as confusion over some aspects of his production choices. These interviews are certainly an interesting addition to an excellent feature.
• Single Disc Edition
• Region 4 PAL
• 16:9 Full Frame Widescreen
• Dolby Digital 5.1 / 2.0
• Languages: English (with English Captions/Audio Description for the hearing/vision impaired)
• On set interviews
• Theatrical release trailer
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: 18 – Contains violence, offensive language, drug use, and sex scenes.
Duration: 117 mins
Genre: Crime Drama | Black Comedy
Director: Werner Herzog (2009)
Actors: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner, Tom Bower, and Brad Dourif (!!!)
Distributor: Roadshow Entertainment