Monday, April 19, 2010

“I need the coke back. I snorted what I thought was coke, turns out it was heroin, and I have to be to work in an hour…”

Well, the time has come. It's the Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Octopus Motor v. Brad Liening's Daily Poem Factory-Machine Blog-off Smack Down: 2010 (aka BL:PoCNOOMvBLDPFMBoSD: 2010)! So be sure to check out Brad Liening's Daily Poem Factory-Machine for Brad's take on Bad Lieutenant, and feel free to declare the Octopus Motor the winner in the comments while you're there.

I fully intended to watch Abel Ferrera's original 1992 Bad Lieutenant before writing this, but I haven't gotten around to it. And to be perfectly honest, I don't think it would have contributed much. I've seen Bad Lieutenant, but it was years ago and I don't remember much. Harvey Keitel is a lieutenant in the NYPD investigating the rape and murder of a nun, and all I really remember is a lot of Catholic guilt themes and two specific scenes that fall into the "things I can't unsee" category of odd and unpleasant (one involves watching a fully nude Keitel smoking crack and crying while shaking his erect penis at the camera, and the other I don't think I could describe without feeling all kinds of dirty). But really, the only connection between the original and the new Bad Lieutenant is that the main character is a drug-addled police lieutenant with dubious morals investigating a murder. (Much has been made about the name since Herzog's Bad Lieutenant is not really a sequel or remake, but it's not really worth getting into. Essentially, no one is happy about it.)

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans follows Terence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage), a police officer in New Orleans who is promoted to lieutenant after saving a drowning prisoner during Hurricane Katrina, and in the process hurts his back. Jump forward one year and McDonagh is addicted to any number of narcotics (primarily the pain medication for his back and coke/crack), seems to be entirely morally bankrupt (e.g. he routinely shakes down drunk night clubbers for drugs and parking lot hand jobs), and has been placed in charge of investigating the execution of a Senegalese family. What follows is two hours of Cage lumbering and slumping through the seedier parts of New Orleans, ingesting huge amounts of drugs, hanging out with his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), trying to manage his gambling debt, and attempting to solve the murder by tracking a local drug kingpin (Xzibit).

There are two ways to approach Bad Lieutenant, one as a Herzog film, the other as a Nicholas Cage film. Let's tackle the Herzog angle first.

To be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea what Herzog was doing making this movie. The entire film has a pervasive devil-may-care attitude about it. Herzog doesn't seem the least bit concerned with making a sensible or trenchant police procedural, but he also doesn't seem to be interested in subverting or deconstructing the genre either. In fact, there seems to be little to no point to the movie, aside from assembling a series of events that range from hilarious to strange to awkward (many times all three). It's fairly obvious that Herzog is having a lot of fun with the movie, but it's also seems fairly obvious that he doesn't really care one way or the other about it. This seems particularly obvious as the movie draws to a close. Ultimately the movie culminates in a series of events that are so wildly incompatible with everything that has happened before it, swinging wildly off in tone in the final scenes (McDonagh's boss's final appearance is definitely a highlight, though). If you're willing to look hard enough, you can probably pick out serious themes and elements, but personally, I feel like that would be a combination of trying too hard and, as far as I can tell, missing the point. In sum, I have no idea what Herzog was doing or thinking, but ultimately that may be beside the point.

That previous paragraph may make it sound like I didn't like Bad Lieutenant, but that's not entirely true. Let's now consider this as a Nicholas Cage vehicle. This is the most recent evidence supporting my theory that Cage's career hasn't been derailed in recent years by progressively worse acting, but more by horrible decisions regarding what movies to appear in. Cage's acting style has always been overblown and full of full throttle eccentricity, but it's just the case that Moonstruck and Leaving Las Vegas are simply better movies than The Wicker Man and Ghost Rider. While I'm a little skeptical of arguments that Bad Lieutenant is a legitimately good movie, its careless and absurdist tone is the perfect match for Cage's careless and absurdist emoting.

Cage shuffles through the movie with a constant, painful, slanted gait. His eyes never cease to have a wide-eyed, intense craziness. He alternates between a stern steeliness and a (usually crack induced) hyper-mania. This is, without a doubt, entirely Cage's movie. His performance is a constant combination of impressive, tireless, charismatic, and train-wreck fascinating. It perpetually blurs the line between being awe-inspiring and cringe-inducing. In every scene, Cage seems to elicit amazement for both good and bad reasons. For every great scene like when Cage and his partner, played by Val Kilmer, debate whether or not to save the drowning prisoner, there are scenes like Cage's the nonsensical threat to "kill all of you, to the break of dawn!" And managing to hit both the good and bad notes in a single scene, there is the certain to be classic old lady scene:

Ultimately, would I say Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a good movie? No, but that's not to say it's bad. "Good" simply seems like an inapt description. I actually really liked it. It is certainly enjoyable as a near unbelievable piece of B-movie exploitation, but there is the constant voice that sits in the back of your mind, prodding you with questions about what the hell Herzog is doing. Cage's performance, and in turn the entire movie, is almost too big and overblown and borderline nonsensical to completely wrap your mind around, but it is almost guaranteed to leave you feeling exhausted in a vaguely good, if somewhat confusing and slightly dirty way. (Probably the way a crack fueled parking lot hand job would make you feel. I guess. Maybe. Probably not. Nevermind.)

Don't forget to check out Brad Liening's Daily Poem Factory-Machine for his half of the BL:PoCNOOMvBLDPFMBoSD: 2010.

PS. Apparently everybody has Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans on the brain lately. Shortly after Brad and I agreed to joint reviews, the AV Club wrote it up for their "New Cult Cannon" series and the /Filmcast chose to review it this week rather than a new release. Odd.


Brad said...

I think you might have won with that embedded clip of Nic Cage threatening the old lady. However, I do want to point out that it's Nicolas Cage, not Nicholas. So maybe that means I won. Or that I really, really didn't.

Scott said...

That video was a cheap parlor trick. But what I can I say, I know how to internets.

If my rampant misspelling of Nicolas Cage's name didn't lose me the blog off, it at least won you Nic's heart.

Brad said...

You're right about one thing for sure: the last scene with Nic Cage's boss is totally priceless.