Tuesday, 25 May 2010
'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans' review: Mad men...
‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’, which stars Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes and Val Kilmer and is directed by Werner Herzog and bares superficial similarity to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film ‘Bad Lieutenant’ which starred Harvey Keitel (although Herzog has denied that it is a sequel or remake of that film). Herzog is perhaps better known now for documentaries such as ‘Grizzly Man’ and ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ rather than his feature films (his last such movie was 2007’s ‘Rescue Dawn’) but anyone familiar with ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ or ‘Fitzcarraldo’ will know to expect a peculiar blend of profundity and madness. ‘Bad Lieutenant’, for the most part, does not disappoint.
Police Lieutenant, Terence McDonagh (Cage), has injured his back in the line of duty and has to take medication. To further ease the pain he turns to cocaine and, through the film, sinks deeper and deeper into corruption and depravity. Along the way we meet his drug addicted, prostitute girlfriend (Mendes) and his violent and volatile police partner (Kilmer). The story, which sees McDonagh attempting to place a local drug kingpin (played by the rapper Xzibit, best known here for hosting MTV’s ‘Pimp My Ride’) under arrest in connection with the homicide of an entire family, is the stuff of your average police procedural. In fact, the film’s writer, William Finkelstein, is a veteran of that genre on television, having penned episodes of ‘Law & Order’, ‘NYPD Blue’ and ‘LA Law’ (among others).
But what stops this film from sinking into the mediocrity that writing pedigree (and, some would argue, cast) would suggest is the collaboration between the film’s two insane geniuses: Herzog and Cage. Venerable old American critic Roger Ebert has described Cage’s performance as being every bit as good as those of the late Klaus Kinski, in so many other Herzog movies in the past. Cage is manic and gives a fantastic performance which contributes to something of a late critical renaissance for the Oscar winner. He gives a great physical performance as he carries himself with a slight hunch due to his back injury and looks and sounds increasingly on the edge of full-on, drug-induced breakdown. The film hinges on this performance as Cage gives his titular police Lieutenant an air of unpredictability and of self-destructive impulsiveness - but always an underlying kindness and intelligence.
Herzog is an equally pivotal part of what makes this film, largely, successful. It is hard to imagine that anybody other than the German director wrote the film’s closing lines, in which Cage asks “Do fish dream?” It is equally hard to imagine that the shooting script contained ultra close-up shots of iguanas and alligators or the scene in which a dead man’s soul starts break dancing. All these elements must be things which Herzog brought to the party and it is these sorts of touches that elevate the material.
There are also some fantastic lines in this movie. Such as when Cage perplexingly tells two old ladies (that he has just threatened to shoot) that they are what’s wrong with America. Kilmer is a good, if underused, presence and works well alongside Cage, whilst Mendes is required to display just as much of a range as Cage, but with more vulnerability, and does so in a performance which is comparatively low-key, but pivotal to the success of the film as a whole.
My major reservations with the film are hard to discuss in a review, as they relate to things some may consider “spoilers”. I’ll just say that the end 20 minutes seems to tie everything up too neatly. During this time I was expecting Herzog to pull back and reveal that we were in the midst of a drug-induced hallucination, but instead the end is really quite dissatisfying and undermines the whole film. There is an epilogue in which Herzog again takes things somewhere darker and more bizarre, but the preceding scenes have already damaged the film by this point.
Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that you see the film. It is certainly the most interesting film still playing in the UK right now (unless you can find ‘Four Lions’ or ‘Dogtooth’ somewhere). If you haven’t seen a Herzog film before, then there are much better places to start: ‘Aguirre’ probably being the most obvious, or maybe the superb documentary ‘My Best Fiend’ which looks at the Herzog/Kinski collaboration. But if you are familiar with the man’s oeuvre, then you should definitely seek this one out.
'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans' is out now and rated '18' by the BBFC. You can see it at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton until Thursday.