Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Saturday, June 05, 2010

One of the strangest pieces of news I heard in recent years was that Werner Herzog was remaking Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage in the lead. It was as unexpected as Andrei Tarkovsky coming back to life and remaking Commando with Michael Cera as Matrix and Jena Malone as Bennett. I just couldn’t quite get my head round it.

Now that I’ve seen the film I have much the same feeling. How the hell did this happen?

Anyone who seriously wants to defend Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans as a legitimately good film is talking out of their arse. The acting is hysterical, the writing is pedestrian and the tone is all over the place. But because of this and because of the many eccentric Herzog touches that litter the film, it ends up being perversely enjoyable. It’s not a return to form for either Cage or Werner; instead it’s a glorious trainwreck – a locomotive smashing through taste and decency.

I thought it would be difficult to top the original Bad Lieutenant for dark, twisted humour. Remember this is a film that has Harvey Keitel doing a naked, drug-filled penguin walk. It’s also a film that features a scene where he shoots his own car radio because he lost a bet. For me, funny, funny stuff. But Herzog’s film manages to top all of that.

My favourite scene by a country mile is when Cage tortures an old lady. He’s trying to locate a witness who’s gone missing and decides to interrogate the witness’s grandmother. The grandmother works in a nursing home and is looking after an old lady who can’t breathe properly – she has a breathing tube in her nose. Now you know the scene is going to be something special when Cage appears behind a door shaving with an electric razor. Yes, this is an entirely sensible and logical thing to do while hiding behind a door. But Cage’s information gathering technique really has to be seen to be believed. He decides to remove the old biddy’s breathing tube and then begins berating the witness’s grandmother. And on top of this, he gets his gun out and points it at her head. It’s maniacal and over the top, but it’s also bloody funny. And Cage’s parting words are a joy to behold. He calls one of the old ladies a cunt and then lectures her for draining her children’s and grandchildren’s money with ‘that fucked up tube’. He then says that the two old ladies are the reason that America is going down the drain and says that he should shoot them. He even starts crying and says how much he hates them. So a wonderful old lady torture scene becomes a critique of the American health system? Fucking inconsiderate old farts living longer lives and costing their kids more money and raising health insurance premiums. If only they had the decency to die at a respectable age. Forty-eight would be good.

The second best scene is when Cage begins seeing iguanas at a stake-out. Off his tits on drugs he begins to hallucinate lizards as a puffy Val Kilmer watches on. But what makes the scene so special is the combination of iguana POV shots and an almost yodelling version of ‘Release Me’. Nothing Herzog does should surprise me, considering that he once plotted to kill Klaus Kinski and that he took an air rifle shot to the gut without flinching, but iguanas…and a yodelling ‘Release Me’ cover? Did this man really make Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo? And am I mentally ill for considering that the iguana scene is one of the most inspired things in cinema in recent years?

Winning the bronze medal for third best scene is when a drug dealer kills a debt collector. The debt collector, played by an unthreatening douche who wouldn’t look out of place in Nash Bridges, tries to collect money from Cage but gets cut down in a gunfight. The action itself is amusing enough, with C-grade heavies getting blow apart to some curiously chirpy harmonica music, but Cage, high on crack, asks his pals to shoot the man again. ‘His soul’s still dancing’, he says. And then we see a guy with a Mohawk and Converse breakdancing before our bad lieutenant. The idea of this breakdancing fool being the soul of a fat I-talian gangster is fucking hilarious. The dancer looks like he’s the soul of one of those spotty Apple Genius dickheads, not some greaseball heavy.

Now what kind of story ties all of these loony scenes together? Nothing much. The family of a small time drug dealer is murdered and Cage has to find out who did it. Storywise, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before in other movies and on bad television. The only thing that distinguishes the movie is Cage’s frenzied acting (he’s like the progeny of James Cagney and Richard Nixon) and Herzog’s perverse sense of humour.

Another favourite scene is when Cage stops a young couple outside a nightclub and begins searching them for drugs (so that he can use them himself). It’s kind an echo of the ‘Show me how you suck a cock’ scene in the original film. Except in this film, Cage does drugs with a girl and then fucks her, making the boyfriend watch. But as hilarious as it is when Cage fires his gun and orders the guy to watch him fucking her girl, the earlier dialogue is even better. He starts talking about the girl’s parents. ‘Did they beat you? Mo-lest you?’ And he says that he bets they think about her as she was when she was a little girl. But what makes this so priceless is the exaggerated facial tic Cage makes after he says it. Subtlety is a foreign concept to Nicolas Cage and the world is a better place for it. And I also love the way that Cage gropes the girl’s buttocks – in an interview, Cage said that he would only eat animals that had dignified sex; well fuck me if this isn’t the most depraved, undignified sex I’ve seen in a long time.

One of the most bizarre things about the film is the way that Cage’s voice changes randomly. Every now and again he’ll begin talking like a Quasimodo James Cagney. But it’s not like you’ve just seen him take a drug hit. And even when he does take some drugs, he doesn’t sound like this. What the fuck?

But just to illustrate how confused the film is, consider the ending. Through some Machiavellian manoeuvring, Cage solves the crime and pays of his debts. And then his girlfriend cleans up and Cage gets promoted to Captain. For a second you’re left wondering if the unthinkable has occurred – Herzog’s made a Hollywood ending. But then just when we think Cage has cleaned up his act, we see him on his own taking drugs. Oh, okay, as nonsensical as the film is, at least the Bad Lieutenant remains a drug-addled prick. But then out of nowhere a character from the beginning of the film turns up and resolves to clean Cage up. And then the individual takes Cage to an aquarium where they’re surrounded by sharks. They sit in silence and then Cage asks if fish have dreams (?!?). Has Cage seen the error of his ways or has nothing changed inside? It doesn’t really matter. Bad Lieutenant is a preposterous film and is as shallow as a puddle. But for that reason it’s the comedy of the year. ‘To the break of dawn. To the break of dawn, baby.'

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