Werner Herzog is crazy. He’s a maverick’s maverick. Not only does he march to the unique beat of his own idiosyncratic drummer, he preps and skins the oddball tom-tom himself, sometimes even writing the syncopated score in his own unique style. This makes his creative process – both fictional and documentary – both insular and yet undeniably appealing. It’s just so much fun watching someone avoid convention to risk it all, almost always for a revelatory, ridiculously good time.
After a pair of stunning fact films – The Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World – and two twisted, intriguing narratives – The Wild Blue Yonder, and the powerful Rescue Dawn – Herzog had a vision. He wanted to make a movie in post-Katrina Louisiana, using the devastation and rebuilding as a means of exploring his usual themes – man vs. nature and the nature of man. He then found a like minded collaborator in Nicolas Cage, and together they decided to demystify and deconstruct the cop thriller. The results – the reprobate and resplendent The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans.
Inspired by, but not wholly based on, the 1992 Abel Ferrara effort, Herzog’s interpretation of a naughty noir murder mystery is a lark. Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a drug-taking, smack talking jackass who views the entire Parish police department as his own personal den of iniquity. He beds a prostitute (played by Eva Mendes) while he avoids the prying eyes of fellow detective Pruit (Val Kilmer) and evidence room supervisor Mundt (Michael Shannon). When an immigrant family is killed, execution style, McDonagh makes it his goal to discover the perpetrators.
Turns out a local gangster named Big Fate (MTV icon Xzibit) had a hand in the heinous crime. Using his street contacts, as well as his own fevered brain, McDonagh tries to entrap his felonious prey, all while taking advantage of the readily available vices and victims in the Crescent City. Through it all, McDonagh is like a deranged hunchback, his constant pain from a spinal injury causing him to walk with major discomfort and lash out whenever the mood hits him. This causes some problems for the policeman, especially when confronting the more elderly or gentile members of the New Orleans community.
In a year filled with audacity (Antichrist, Inglourious Basterds), nothing is cheekier and as out and out ballsy as The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans. This is creativity as confrontation, expectations challenged and then shattered by one of the last true artists left in the field of filmmaking. Sure, it all seems funny and insincere, a joke on the audience where everyone in the cast and crew is bastardizing their own insular take on the material for the sake of a grander illusion. But dismissing the movie in that way underestimates Herzog’s power as a provocateur. He is not out to serve some commercial conceit, or waste his time playing around with some actors and a camera. This is serious business to him, and at its core, Bad Lieutenant is a serious film.
As with Ferrara’s ferocious denouncement of faith and character flaws, Herzog uses the thin blue line as a means of exploring the precipice between legality and lawlessness. He gives McDonagh several reasons for his foibles – physical pain, emotional scarring (an alcoholic father with an equally booze soaked bimbo girlfriend), lack of love, abuse of power, availability, corruption, and the always present notion of inherent evil. He then places them against a situation of real shock and horror – a family massacred in ritualized retaliation – and asks you to judge which is worse.
Sure, Cage grandstands, going off gloriously when questioning some residents of a nursing home, and there are moments when his Method cannot decipher McDonagh’s madness. Like the proto-caricaturish turns in Vampire’s Kiss, or Peggy Sue Got Married, the actor is manufacturing personality from the mannerism up, discovering along with the viewer what makes this particular public servant so surreal. That Herzog lets him explore any and all avenue of said character expression is one of Bad Lieutenant‘s best features. That he also gives the same leeway to other willing participants (Kilmer is always ready to go gonzo, while Jennifer Coolidge really lets it all hang out as Cage’s father’s beer soaked confidant) makes the experience all the more memorable.
From then on, it’s a matter of matching the designs of the whodunit with the need to continuous push the limits of said genre. Cage’s character has frequent drug-fueled hallucinations, all of which seemingly revolve around the bayou reclaiming New Orleans for its very own. There are also glimpses of real truth, as when a potential witness flees in order to avoid the penalty of playing snitch within this society. Herzog is not just out to make an epic farce – he’s using this blatantly over the top approach to reveal the ambiguous nature of law, as well as the questionable tendencies of either side. Indeed, Xzibit’s kingpin is perhaps the most moral man in the entire film.
Yet that’s what makes The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans so special. It takes the truth and filters it in a way that makes us see it in a whole new, far more expressive way. Sure, we can laugh as Cage curses out a couple, or snorts coke, but these are parts of a portrait far more fiery and provoking. What we are supposed to see is something far more chilling, an illustration of how deadening, and defeating, a pursuit of justice can be. McDonagh is not bad because he’s wicked. He’s awful because people are awful. Because criminals will do anything to avoid capture and culpability. Because everyone is on the take, they just don’t realize it. In Herzog’s universe, human beings are pawns as part of some comical cosmic game where no one knows the rules and few can follow the various moves.
With it’s spirit and bravado, desire to defy as much as it suggests the standards, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans is a new level for its director. It shows he can subvert his normal idealism for some good old fashioned fun while still poking around in the areas that earned him his reputation. Cage continues to confuse, choosing unusual projects like this while cashing paychecks for chum like G-Force and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary is NOLA herself, a wondrous city soiled by nature and man’s reaction to such a devastating disaster. Yet amongst the rot and rubble, life continues on. It’s same for Werner Herzog and his oft muted muse. Under his auspices, this Bad Lieutenant is oh so good.