by M. Faust
The dream team of Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog talk about Bad Lietenant: Port of Call—New Orleans
For fans of a cinematic genre that I am going to christen, at least for the purpose of this review, the WTF! film, you can’t ask for a more perfect storm of confluence than a) Nicolas Cage starring in an adaptation of b) Abel Ferrara’s 1991 Bad Lieutenant as directed by c) Werner Herzog. That the result is not as good as might be hoped for speaks more to the impossible hopes inspired by that combination than to the film itself, which is one of the more bizarrely oddball spectacles to lope onto movie screens this year.
Actually, the Bad Lieutenant part is something of a misnomer. A producer owned the rights to the name (to the distress of Ferrara, not that he’s a difficult guy to piss off) and wanted to make it into a franchise, apparently forgetting that Harvey Keitel’s character died at the end of the 1991 movie. The script began that way, but by the time it got filmed all that was left of the original conception was the leading character of a cop with a drug and gambling problem whose independent streak (to put it mildly) is getting him into increasing amounts of trouble.
Reset to New Orleans, the film opens during Hurricane Katrina with a scene to set up our hero’s fall from grace: He hurts his back saving a felon who is in danger of drowning in his locked prison cell, an injury that leads to a dependence on Vicodin and eventually the kind of non-prescription painkillers that tend to collect in police evidence lockers.
The movie has a plot—the investigation into the slaughter of a family of Senegalese immigrants on the orders of a local drug lord—and it works to hold together everything that is worth seeing about the movie. Which falls into two categories:
1. Nicolas Cage in the kind of performance that he used to give before he won an Academy Award and started making big bucks as a Movie Star. Hunched over like a bad Nixon impressionist and bursting into unexpected brays of laughter, he’s as unfettered as he’s been since Vampire’s Kiss. Even in his straightest movies there’s always a touch of weirdness—that’s what lifts the National Treasure movies a hair above assembly-line product—but for the first time in years here he’s in full bull goose looney mode.
2. Werner Herzog working with a lack of physical restraints and an adequate budget. He claims never to have seen the Ferrara film, and probably took the job only as an easy gig and because he saw some of the qualities of Klaus Kinski in Cage. That said, he’s free to indulge himself in equally berserk improvised moments. My favorite—everyone’s favorite—is the iguanas, which I won’t spoil for you. Then there’s the dancing dead guy.
What a lot of this has to do with the story, I couldn’t tell you. But it’s a lot more entertaining than the story. As far as that goes, there’s a scene played for deadpan farce near the end when all of our hero’s problems are wrapped up in the space of about 60 seconds while he sits at his desk.
Still not persuaded? Did I mention that Herzog has been hanging around with David Lynch lately, and that it shows?
Some comments from Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog from their Toronto Film Festival press conference for The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans:
AV: Your movies aren’t exactly comedies, but in this movie there is a lot of humor that seemed intentional, like you were trying to create some comedy elements.
Herzog: We always sensed that there was a dark, subversive humor in the screenplay. However, in a way we emphasized it, and there was always a quest out there that as vile and debased as the character gets, the more he should enjoy himself; so there’s such a thing as the bliss of evil. You have to enjoy this. And then it creates a strange humor—it becomes hilarious almost—and people laugh and respond and this is wonderful to see.
The iguanas: What shall I say? I love to cast animals in important roles in my films and of course it is a demented fantasy, which I like to create. It came more or less spontaneously but we always kept things open for the unexpected. For example, Jennifer Coolidge and Eva Mendes when they are fighting over the handbag and the drugs; there’s not much scripted in it. Yes, there were some lines of dialogue but otherwise the two young ladies had to sort it out themselves. You cannot really direct it bit by bit. Or Nicolas Cage very often had complete liberty, like in jazz music, to have his own voice, to improvise. So those are the real convincing and strong moments in the film.
AV: You went balls-out in this film. Did you have a lot of fun letting loose?
Cage: I just felt that I was in the zone and I came in prepared and did what I had to do, and I thank Werner for letting me go. I didn’t need to be pushed, I didn’t need to be pulled, I just came in and did what I had to do, and I thank Werner for having the guts to let me do it.
AV: You’ve described this performance as impressionistic, whereas something like Leaving Las Vegas was more photo-realistic—could you expand on that?
Cage: People like to say things like “over the top.” You can’t say that about other art forms. You can’t say “over the top” with a Picasso or “over the top” with a Van Gogh. And why can’t it be the same with acting? So when I think about it in those terms, in Leaving Las Vegas, you know, I had a couple drinks. I wanted to. I had prescribed scenes where I said ‘I’m going to get drunk and anything goes,’ and I’m glad I did it. But with Bad Lieutenant, I say that this is impressionistic because I was totally sober and I was looking at a landscape from over 20 years ago. And I wasn’t sure I could do it. It was a challenge. But I believed that the filter of my instrument would give you something more exciting because it was impressionistic.
Watch the trailer for Bad Lietenant: Port of Call—New Orleans
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