Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
by Jef Burnham
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The audacious performance of Harvey Keitel defined Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant. Most reviews of the film focus solely on Keitel’s performance, which is one of the most daring, if not one of the best of the 90’s. The film’s director/co-writer, Ferrara, was at best an accomplice to Keitel in this. Ferrara’s script delves deeper and more poignantly into the ideas of morality and redemption than most films, yet his direction of the piece is for the most part unimpressive and stale. The resulting impression is that Keitel gave Ferrara everything he had on set, but Ferrara was afraid to back him up. The film lacks the visual left jab to adequately setup Keitel’s powerhouse right. The ineffective support of Keitel’s work is all the more apparent after seeing the culmination of director Werner Herzog and Nicholas Cage’s cinematic relationship in Herzog’s pseudo-remake/sequel, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Following Cage’s brilliant portrayal of twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman in 2002’s Adaptation, audiences suffered through a number of Cage-starring duds including Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man, Bangkok Dangerous and Knowing (of course, the National Treasure movies are fun, but they are Disney after all). Cage was long overdue for a truly great role, but his acting was getting more bizarre and out of control. Enter legendary, experimental German filmmaker, Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Aguirre: The Wrath of God) with the role of Terence McDonagh, the new “Bad Lieutenant.” In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Herzog allows Cage’s peculiar, over-the-top performance-style to explode, and he backs him up every step of the way.
Port of Call New Orleans is hardly as shocking or offensive as its predecessor, but it’s harder to shock the masses these days. It would be more accurately categorized as a comedy (inasmuch as Herzog ever makes a comedy). For every step Cage takes toward drug-induced delirium, Herzog follows suit cinematically with tangents on lizards with music inappropriate to the otherwise somber tone of the piece. It recalls Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but Port of Call New Orleans’ satirical focus is primarily on the implausibility of the standard, American police drama, deconstructing this American myth to the point of absurdity. McDonagh carries a .44 Magnum in the front of his pants, breaks all the rules in the name of justice, and plays all sides against each other, not unlike any other police drama/noir protagonist. But he stands apart in the extent to which he will defy protocol and convention to solve his case. He goes on a week-long drug binge to stay awake; partakes in blackmail, theft, and breaking and entering; and assaults elderly women to obtain information.
I fear much of the audience will not understand the satire, the experimental nature or the comedy of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, particularly as a result of the film’s advertising campaign, which is confusing at best. Plus, those who are particularly fond of Ferrara’s version may actually be insulted by Herzog’s, in that it bears no resemblance to the original. Herzog had, in fact, never heard of Ferrara or the original Bad Lieutenant when he initially read the prolific police drama writer, William M. Finkelstein’s screenplay. As of the Telluride Film Festival this year, Herzog had not seen the original, nor did he seem inclined to at any point in the future. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is its own piece, and a far more enjoyable one at that. If I had to choose between the Bad Lieutenant films, I would devote my two hours to Port of Call New Orleans every time.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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