The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Werner Herzog, director. William Finkelstein, script. Starring: Nicolas Cage (Lt. Terrence McDonagh), Eva Mendes (Frankie Donnenfeld), Val Kilmer (Stevie Pruitt), Brad Dourif (Ned), Xzibit (Big Fate), Fairuza Balk (Heidi), Jennifer Coolidge (Genevieve), Michael Shannon (Mundt)
Two great eccentrics demolish the cop thriller genre in this new version of the ‘90s cult favourite The Bad Lieutenant. It takes a lot to outdo the excesses of director Abel Ferrara and actor Harvey Keitel but the duo of Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage are more than up to the task. Though only the intriguing title and basic premise have been kept from the original noirish flick, it’s fascinating to compare the two.
New York City in its pre-Giuliani decadence, Catholic guilt and cocaine pushed Keitel off the tracks from “bon cop” to “bad cop” in the first version of this cautionary film. Herzog, who is a far better director than Ferrara—much more open and experimental in his narrative choices—has moved the story to post-Katrina New Orleans, where a cop (Cage’s Terrence McDonagh) has wrecked his back saving a drowning prisoner during the Hurricane. Initially addicted to pills, McDonagh has become a cocaine addict but is still struggling to remain a good policeman. That’s a moral dilemma that didn’t seem to affect Keitel. Nor did Keitel feel any commitment towards anyone while Cage’s McDonagh is in love with Frankie, a prostitute just waiting to be reformed.
Not only is Cage’s lieutenant more complex than his predecessor, a recovering New Orleans is an even more interesting setting than New York to play out the perverse plot. And Nicolas Cage’s over the top performance is at least as risky as that of Keitel in the original. Both actors are willing to make themselves woefully unpopular in order to bring out the depths of the lieutenant’s despair.
Playing with the notion of the bad back, Cage lurches from scene to scene Quasimodo-style. His eyes bulging and his pistol stashed un-holstered down the centre of his pants, McDonagh is hardly a sympathetic character. Neither was Keitel, who in the film’s signature scene, performs an act of self-abuse in front of two young women, who are singularly repulsed by him. Both actors are brave, willing to do most everything in order to make a character come alive.
Scriptwriter William Finkelstein has crafted a plot, which is far more exciting than the original. Here, the lieutenant must deal with Big Fate, a drug peddler who may be responsible for the death of a family of African immigrants. The story resonates with outside politics: who will actually defend you even when you’re dead? The lieutenant also has to deal with a girlfriend who is out to reform herself—and maybe him, too.
The Bad Lieutenant was a surprise success at TIFF. Riding on the hype surrounding Cage’s brilliant acting turn, this film might actually be a minor hit. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing.