The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009, USA)

Werner Herzog has presided over what might loosely be termed ‘remakes’ before: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), his predictably odd re-imagining of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic actually seems to sit quite comfortably in amongst his other classics of the 1970s, and while Rescue Dawn (2007) could hardly be termed a replica of his earlier documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), their similarities do reflect the always fine line between fact and fiction that all of his best films carefully tread. This last point has always struck me as the major value of his work; as such, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982), for all of its merits, seemed only to be the second best documentary about the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), the first being the film itself and its self-reflexive examination of the director’s relation to his chosen artifice through the proxy of Kinski’s titular character.

If there is reason to be disappointed with his latest film, the mouth-numbingly wordily-titled The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, then it is for an absence of this sense of Herzogian ambiguity between fiction and fact; one might question why this usually picky auteur plumped for making what is a reasonably straightforward thriller in the first place, save for the possibility of working with Nicolas Cage, whose gloriously deranged central performance – bouncing around from scene to scene and from score to score – rivals virtually anything that the Bavarian director’s famously lunatic collaborative partnership with Klaus Kinski committed to celluloid.

That aside, there is very little of note; none of his famous eye for establishing an extreme sense of location, whether through visuals or diegetic sound, surely a waste considering both the architectural specificity and the unparalleled musical tradition of the city of New Orleans. Indeed, as lensed by long-time DP Peter Zeitlinger, the film looks much like a bog-standard cable TV police drama. Neither does there seem to be much in the way of an overarching theme, unlike in Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant (1992) which was much more obviously steeped in a strongly Catholic sense of sin, foregiveness and redemption. Herzog himself has said the film is about “the bliss of evil”; the bliss certainly shines through in the film’s sheer enjoyability, but the near-slapstick tone detracts from the idea that its protagonist is genuinely evil, particularly when one remembers just how bad Harvey Keitel was in the earlier film.

As a standard crime drama, the film is hard to fault thanks to a tight and at times highly amusing script from veteran scribe William M. Finkelstein, save for some horribly shoehorned-in clunkiness towards the end about a childhood spoon. As one might expect from a Herzog film, the emphasis is very much placed on just the one central character, putting what is one of Cage’s career-best performances in the full spotlight but at the cost of marginalizing an under-used supporting cast. Eva Mendes has little more to do than Isabelle Adjani did Nosferatu; as if we needed reminding, Herzog’s is worldview is unmistakeably male-centric.

Except maybe it isn’t. Outside of the narrative there are some genuinely odd moments, all seeming to involve animals. Iguanas are filmed in extreme close-up while Johnny Adams sings Release Me on the soundtrack, a camera views the scene of a car crash as if through an alligator’s eyes, a family dog seems to cause characters more trouble than one might suspect, and the film ends with a shot of its main character being dwarfed by a background of sharks swimming in an aquarium tank. What is the relevance? Perhaps, when all is said and done, Herzog cares little for this silly world of cops, drug dealers and hookers; it would seem to be an opinion which shared by these animals, indifferent and largely undisturbed by the petty goings-on of the human world. Maybe this is why Bad Lieutenant feels hardly like Werner Herzog’s film at all; it just is not in the world he is interested in. Regardless, it is an amiable-enough piece of popcorn entertainment and, along with Kick Ass (2010), a welcome reminder of just how much fun Nicolas Cage can be.

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