By Elijah Sullivan
Filmmaker Werner Herzog has tried his hand at commercial filmmaking before (2005’s “Rescue Dawn”), and although his ill-advised “companion film” to Abel Ferrara’s infamous 1992 film “Bad Lieutenant” was another financial disappointment, the Bavarian auteur’s latest film is a comic masterpiece brimming with fresh imagery.
Nicolas Cage plays the titular character, a New Orleans detective who suffers a back injury rescuing a drowning man in the opening scene of the film. Cage’s lieutenant stalks the tattered streets of post-Katrina New Orleans attempting to solve a gang-related crime, but ends up shaking up his suspects for drugs to ease his discomfort. The bad lieutenant is really just a tour guide across a landscape; Herzog’s real subject is nature’s war to reclaim New Orleans from civilization.
When this project was announced, many pundits did a double take: Herzog – best known for making hallucinogenic pseudo-epics about nature and insanity – was tackling a remake of a American crime film with… Nicolas Cage? Whose idea was that?
Abel Ferrara, the director of the original “Bad Lieutenant,” expressed his exasperation by threatening to murder Herzog and his cast via car bomb. After a career spanning four decades during which he filmed on active volcanoes, dragged a steamboat over a mountain, and spent a year on the Amazon searching for El Dorado, assassination seemed like a plausible conclusion to Herzog’s colorful biography.
Herzog’s narrative films always center on a strong lead performance — the more bizarre the better. With his stooping gait and reptilian rage, critics have compared Cage’s performance to Richard the Third; I think he’s actually channeling Klaus Kinski, whose performance as the humpbacked Don Lope de Aguirre in “Aguirre: the Wrath of God” launched Herzog’s career in 1971. It was one of the great performances in cinema history, and began a string of Kinski/Herzog productions that were amazingly fruitful – even if they occasionally plotted to murder each other.
Ferrera’s original “Lieutenant” was one of the most distressing films I’ve ever sat through, a study of corrosive Catholic guilt that demanded a harrowing performance from lead actor Harvey Keitel. The Herzog/Cage film is (thankfully) presented as satire, pushing deep into absurdist territory. Like Keitel, Cage forgoes powdered sugar, snorting real coke on the set and, in one scene, shows off “his lucky crack pipe” before lighting up with rapper Xzibit. Some people called Cage’s performance an embarrassment (it doesn’t help that the film was advertised as a run-of-the-mill cop picture), but Cage’s performance synthesizes the right amount of campiness and egomania to imitate the Herzog/Kinski experience. I hope they collaborate again.
“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”
Directed by Werner Herzog.
Screenplay by William Finklestein.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Xzibit and Jennifer Coolidge.
Now on DVD and Blu-Ray.