Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans

Grade : A+ Year : 2009 Director : Werner Herzog Running Time : 2hr 2min Genre : ,
Movie review score

Nobody’s mentioned the gambling.

In just about everything I’ve read about both Abel Ferrara’s extraordinary 1992 drama (with a never-better Harvey Keitel) and Werner Herzog’s equally engrossing, “remake” of it, nothing has brought up the gambling addiction of either character. In the earlier film, it was ultimately the cause of his demise. Here, it’s simply another means of getting a fix for Terence McDonagh, the character played by Nicolas Cage in this film. That doesn’t make it any less vital to the film.

Although damn near every review has already mentioned it, it bears repeating that Cage and Herzog were meant to collaborate, especially on a film as bizarre and bold as this one. William Finkelstein’s screenplay carries over the framework of Ferrara’s film and sets it in a post-Katrina New Orleans. Any other director-actor pairing and Ferrara would be justified his rage at the idea of this new take on his very personal material. The direction Cage and Herzog take it pays tribute to the tragedy of the material but plays up the dark humor in the situation.

And yes, it’s hard not to laugh during this film (even if you don’t feel good about it after), be it whether Cage is going bug-fuck big in his dealings or whether it’s one of the many intriguing (read: surreal) close-ups Herzog allows for iguanas during the movie. What is it with iguanas and drugs that make them seem to go together so well? (If memory serves, they also showed up in Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”) Whatever it is, Herzog knows how to use them.

McDonagh wasn’t always a “bad lieutenant.” He was recognized for valor in saving a prisoner during the Katrina floods. The deed threw out his back, which is where his drug addiction started. Being a cop, he had easy access, and the authority to get his fix on. His girlfriend is a hooker (and played by the ever-lovely Eva Mendes with surprising feeling), but it’s his family that offers the biggest window into his life. His father (Tom Bower) is someone who’s been battling an addiction to drink his whole life; he’s now doing what he can to continue with AA. His stepmother (Jennifer Coolidge) also drinks, but is also caring even with a beer always in her hand and a rage when these men can’t get their shit together.

The story involves a murder of a family involved with dealing drugs, but the film is much more about mood and style in how it gets into McDonagh’s life. The music by Mark Isham has a lot of the typical police thriller beats, as well as some original percussive elements that get to the surreal nature of Terence’s existence and how he goes about his day. And the cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger is a marvel at accentuating the city’s tragic decline in elegance post-Katrina, as well as giving Herzog the freedom to find the type of truly original and unusual shots that are evident in his feature films.

But the performances are what you’ll remember. As McDonagh’s sometimes-partner, Val Kilmer is the straight man, which may seem like a waste of his talents, but is just what this film needs at times. Brad Dourif is Ned, Terence’s bookie, who is sick of McDonagh’s bad bets, but genuinely excited when things work out for him. And Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner is superb as your usual privileged career criminal, known as Big Fate, whom McDonagh offers his services to when he needs out of a scrape.

And then there’s Cage. Yet another great performance in a career of great risks (as well as some great sell-outs, of course). If his performance lacks the subtlety of many other “great performances,” it’s because let’s face it, this character is anything but subtle. He snorts up while in the car with a witness. When he’s in his parent’s home. He shakes down a young couple and gets it on with the woman, payment for not telling their parents. And when he gets that crazed look in his eye (think Castor Troy in “Face/Off”), well, there’s nobody better at playing off-the-rails weird. And no director is better suited than Herzog to film it (his love-hate-really hate relationship with Klaus Kinski is legendary). Please tell me these two will meet up again in the future. Sooner rather than later.

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