Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)

As miserably dark as Abel Ferrara's Harvey Keitel-starring Bad Lieutenant (1992) was, this re-vamp takes the darkness to another level with added dozes of weird and supermassive-black-hole black humour. "Re-vamp" is the key word here. Perhaps going with the BSG route and calling this re-imagining may also work, but Werner Herzog's Lieutenant shares only superficial similarities to the "original". It not only takes the character and the circumstances to whole new levels of insanity, but comes out with a completely different story altogether. I have always had a man-movie-crush on Herzog and he insists on not letting me down. Welcome to the dark side.

Nicolas Cage plays Terence McDonagh - the New Orleans police detective, who suffers from chronic back pains after saving a prisoner from a flooded cell in the aftermath of the Katrina. Soon, the Vicodin prescriptions of his doctor do not suffice and he seeks alternative ways to relieve his pain. Enter crack cocaine, heroin, and others. He is investigating a multiple homicide case of a Senegalese family who were dealing drugs in the neighbourhood of a known drug baron. Meanwhile, he has issues that at first seem to be sort of addenda to his life, but end up taking the centre stage: his high-class pro girlfriend (Eva Mendes in another boring performance); his recently-sober father's marital issues with his new beer-gushing white-trash wife; and his increasing debt to his bookiee (Brad Dourif).

What is fascinating about the story is that the main issue - the murder investigation - soon takes a back seat and McDonagh begins to tackle the other conflicts in his life. This transition is so seamless that by the end of the film, I was lost ford words as to what the whole thing was really about. Its episodic structure certainly helps to emphasize this, but credit must go to the screenwriter William M. Finkelstein for writing a compelling story.

Herzog is a visually stunning director and his no-compromise attitude has been evident in his magnificent run of films from the late 70s and into the early 80s. Just the fact that the man managed to work with Klaus Kinski on more than a handful of films merits admiration. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is not in the same league as the likes of Fitzcarraldo (1982) or Woyzeck (1979) - although in Cage's McDonagh, there is a hint of both characters - Herzog manages to sprinkle little bits of genius here and there.

A case in point would be the scene where McDonagh visits a crash site to ask the police officer there to take care of his bookie's daughter's speeding ticket. The officer refuses to be bribed or cajoled to break the law and there's a little bit of tete-a-tete between the two men, only to be interrupted with an old friend of McDonagh. This is one of those dull scenes that could easily have been cut and it wouldn't have had any effect on the proceedings. But the setting and what Herzog does with his camera is spot-on: first of all we come into the scene as the camera moves towards the scene of the crash and there is a gator lying in the middle of the road, one leg still dangling in the air, obviously on the cusp of death. It is surreal and quite creepy. He then cuts to a video shot of the proceedings from the point of view of another gator, which is watching everything from the side of the road. From that moment on I felt myself in the presence of a great film.

Nicolas Cage's performance also deserves credit. The man's on a roll, what with his Adam West-ish performance in Kick-Ass (2010) and this one, Cage is definitely back to his crazy, wild-eyed best. The bursts of laughter, his crooked posture and those bulging eyes and pale white face ... it feels like he was born to play this role. Part of me thinks that maybe this is the beginning of a another great director-actor partnership. Let's hope that is the case.

It's not without its flaws, though. Val Kilmer has a part as McDonagh's meaner and sleazier partner. However, he disappears throughout the majority of the film and crops up at the end in an inexplicably awkward scene. It ties in well with the surreal quality of the film, but I felt that he could have had a larger role in all of this. And, yes Eva Mendes ... she is gorgeous to look at, but she keeps taking on these really dull roles that are getting a little old. The episodic structure may also distract some.

Whatever, this is a fantastic film. I just wish it was called something else, because it will always be compared to the "original". Shame - it is hands down far superior to Ferrara's Catholic-guilt ridden cliche.

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