wed 03/06/2020

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans | reviews, news & interviews

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Werner Herzog's tale of a mad rogue cop stays well within its comfort zone

Werner Herzog is your go-to guy if you want a film about extraordinary madness. The German director's legendary partnership with Klaus Kinski yielded such wild and wonderful monuments to insanity as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Theirs would be the natural team for this tale of a cop run amok, but, Kinski having departed to that great padded cell in the sky, Herzog hooks up instead with Nicolas Cage. The result is a slickly amusing, facetious study in dementia that declares its weirdness loud and proud without straying anywhere close to the edge of its comfort zone.

Cage plays a cynical detective who, in an access of moral rectitude, plunges into flood water to save a prisoner's life, a deed which leaves him with a police medal, a back injury and a ravening Class A-drug habit (though so vaguely defined is his character that you're never quite certain to what extent the act was a turning point for him). Six months later, he's a basket case, cutting a merry swathe through the local crime scene as he screws female suspects, threatens witnesses, fixes evidence and shares coke with his sometime lover, a high-class hooker played by Eva Mendes. So brilliant are his policing skills, however, that his bosses turn a blind eye to all of the above, assigning him instead to solving the murder of a family of Senegalese drug dealers.

The story is loosely based on Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara's lacerating 1992 film produced by Edward R Pressman, the éminence grise behind this version, on which Herzog is effectively a gun for hire. Besides acquiring a bullish definite article in its title, the re-make very effectively transplants the setting from New York to New Orleans, a city laid waste by the twin tidal waves of Hurricane Katrina and the economic crisis and shot by Herzog through chilly filters that bleach out any hint of colourful tourist exotica.

Watch a clip from Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant - containing copious bad language - starring Harvey Keitel

There are other, blander changes. In Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel bared his soul and his intimate physical parts as the ultimate lapsed Catholic, a man racked by his loss of faith; his performance was not without humour but contained a manifest seriousness of purpose (watch him in action above). Herzog's film is strictly secular, unless you count a quick dash of Deep South voodoo at a funeral ceremony. And, while Cage is a master of the manic gaze and the studied antic disposition (he won an Oscar for his alcoholic in Mike Figgis's 1995 Leaving Las Vegas and there is no shortage of other magnificent obsessionals in his CV), his character is played here for ironic, pitch-black comedy. Cage is having a ball, no doubt about it, but there's never any genuine sense of his being possessed by demons (for that, check out Casey Affleck's truly disturbing psychotic rogue cop in The Killer Inside Me, opening next month).

Have I mentioned the iguanas? Wallowing in its Louisiana swampland setting, The Bad Lieutenant teems with snakes and geckos and alligators right from its opening shot. And instead of presenting them in the expected manner, as Cage's drug-deranged hallucinations, Herzog films their scenes from the beasties' point of view: they're an unblinking, inscrutable Greek chorus eyeballing the mayhem. The sense of an indifferent natural order has always hovered over the director's films, from the swarming monkeys that mocked Aguirre's defeat to the ravenous bears that chomped through Timothy Treadwell's anthropomorphic delusions in Grizzly Man. The fan-boys will split their sides at Herzog's latest bad-cop reverie, but its reptilian blood runs cold as ice, cold as liquid helium, cold as death.

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