Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans
My dears, whatever else you are doing this week you must set aside time to see this film, which is lunatic but also extraordinary and riveting. It’s directed by Werner Herzog and stars Nicolas Cage and if it is of a known genre, it is not a genre known to me. Is it a police procedural? A mystery thriller? A dark comedy? It doesn’t look or sound or behave like any other movie. It’s out on its own, and it’s wild and, if it is messy, it is always exhilaratingly messy. I am no Herzog expert — except on bank holidays, weather permitting — but I’ve always felt that many of his previous, fictional films haven’t been that interested in communicating with an audience. It’s: this is about me and my leading man of the moment, and to hell with you! But Bad Lieutenant invites us along for the ride, and even says ‘welcome aboard’ and asks: how might we entertain you today? This is Herzog and it’s fun, and you don’t get many of those for the pound. Get it while you can.
It’s loosely based on Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, which starred Harvey Keitel as the corrupt, drug-crazed cop, but Herzog insists this isn’t a remake. This is Herzog’s vision, and so entirely different, and no comparisons should be made although film theoreticians will doubtless give it a go. Heck, if it were a bank holiday, and the weather were permitting, I’d probably have a go. But let’s get to the meat.
Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop who, at the outset, injures his back and so spends the rest of the film going round in a broken, lopsided way. His doctor prescribes Vicodin for the pain but that is not enough for McDonagh’s pain. Nothing is ever enough for McDonagh’s pain. He snaffles up every other drug going: crack; cocaine; heroin. I’m not fond of drug-taking in movies. I find all that snorting ugly. It is never a good look. You don’t see it in Vogue. Even Kate Moss does it in private (mostly) and she can carry off most things. But here McDonagh is so ecstatically in love with his own immorality and debasement it is kind of thrilling. And this isn’t the end of it. He is also violent, a thief, a rapist and a gambler. We are all used to maverick cops — some day, a maverick cop is going to choke on his very maverickness — but this is in a different league. There is a story. A group of Senegalese immigrants have been murdered. Who did it? But the story isn’t what keeps you going. It’s the direction and Cage that keep you going.
Cage’s bizarre physicality doesn’t appeal to everyone. It has often not appealed to me. Everything about him is wrong. His hands are too big for his wrists. His eyes swivel like the cherries in a fruit machine. His smile is deranged. His limbs never look as if they are quite his own; as if he might have borrowed them for the day. But here he is so wrong he is right — right for the insanity and fearlessness of it — and Herzog lets him run riot. There’s a scene in which he intimidates two old ladies in a retirement home. It shouldn’t be hilarious, but Cage’s hyperkinetic riotousness makes it so. This film doesn’t sound like fun — Drugs! Rape! Shootings! — but it is. There are other actors. Eva Mendes plays the prostitute who is also McDonagh’s girlfriend. Val Kilmer plays a fellow cop. An iguana plays itself. But none of them really matters.
And the directing? The film was shot over 35 consecutive days with no rehearsals and no second takes, and so it is all fast energy. Although I’m still no Herzog expert — even on bank holidays, when the weather is permitting, I find I sometimes can’t be bothered — it may be he went at it with an uncharacteristic abandon while waiting for something more serious to come along. He is certainly in a playful mood, if a playful mood is defined by reptilian interludes involving snakes, iguanas and even crocodiles dying on the highway. Weird? You bet. But it’s also somehow in keeping with the films hallucinatory feel, and so never…what is it the young people say these days?…up itself? This is a fine film, and one that also ends on the following question: ‘Do fish dream?’ to which I happen to have the answer. ‘No,’ says my goldfish, Bubbles. ‘Once I’m out I’m out for the night.’