THE ONLY CRIMINAL HE CAN'T CATCH IS HIMSELF
Some films you simply don’t think would ever really hit the remake track, and you’d certainly have to think of Bad Lieutenant as one of them. A story about the downfall of an amoral and reprehensible police officer, brought on by years of pent up religious guilt and instigated by a horrific sexual assault on a nun? Doesn’t exactly spring immediately to mind when thinking about what can bring in the box office. That said, Werner Herzog never really seemed to be one to take the easy road. Indeed, his other films are infamous for the difficulty in getting them made, involving stories of injured stuntmen, heated battles with actors, and indigenous shamans offering to murder his star… and that was just one film. Given this pedigree, he’s clearly the kind of person to accept that job.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans police Sergeant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) tries to rescue a prisoner from the flooded jail, but severely injures his spine in the process. For his heroism, he is promoted to Lieutenant; for his pain, he is given painkillers. He swiftly becomes addicted to both, cranking up his drug usage and abusing his position for personal gain. Only his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes) offers him any kind of relief. When an African family of small-time dealers and their two children are executed, Terence is assigned to investigate, but he has some trouble in locating the one witness and building a case against those responsible.
There was a lot of controversy and caterwauling surrounding the news of an apparent sequel/remake to Bad Lieutenant, with none more viciously scathing than the creator of the original, Abel Ferrara. On hearing the plans to tackle that character again, Ferrara spoke openly to any media outlet that would listen, saying that, “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” Harsh. He also took verbal swings at both Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog, saying that they had no right to even attempt such an endeavour. Obviously, his ire was plentiful. However, when those same media folks questioned Werner Herzog about the ferocity of Ferrara’s words, his response was typical: “I have no idea who he is.” Clearly, Herzog knows that the best way to undermine the torrent of abuse from an angry person is to completely cut their legs out from under them, basically saying that they aren’t even on his radar.
Herzog always denied that the film was a remake, or a sequel, and actively fought for a name change, though without success. Apparently, he talked of it as a “rethought”, a spiritual cousin, a film that shared the same basic idea - a corrupt cop trying to stop his world from caving in - but taking it in a completely different direction. From this perspective, he’s correct. There’s little attempt to make something that bears resemblance to Ferrara’s gritty ‘Catholic guilt and redemption’ thriller. If anything, steps have been taken to distance the new film from the old. Where the original was a film slowed by the weight of religious metaphor and damnation, the new one is choked up on hallucinogens and hysterical mania.
Many critics have said that to try and compare the two is useless, as if it would like comparing a Swedish 1855 Three Skilling Banco stamp printed in yellow to an apple... and that’s pretty useless. I’m not sure I agree that it’s an entirely fruitless undertaking, although I do agree that it can get in the way of enjoying the film as is. I’ll consider this film on its own merits for now, but I’ll come back to this point later.
For The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, the action has been shifted, as the title says, to the city of New Orleans, post-Katrina. This is a city that, in its current state, Nature seems to be trying to reclaim from its human populace. The effects of the water are still apparent, with a significant portion of residents having left for drier pastures, and the sense of a humid climate pervading the homes of those that stayed. Even the animal kingdom seems to be making its move. Iguanas are everywhere, and an alligator meets its end by being run over as it crossed the highway, all watched by a fellow reptile. In fact, the opening shot of the film sees a snake riding the waters into a waterlogged jail, kind of like it’s checking out its new digs, much to the distress of the lone prisoner they forgot to evacuate. And this is how we meet Terence McDonagh.
Because this one prisoner needed to be saved, and McDonagh was the only one willing to help, he ends up injuring himself badly. McDonagh messes his spine up, giving him a permanent hunch in his shoulders and a life-long pain problem, for which he gets medicated. You’d be tempted to think that this act of benevolence is evidence of McDonagh’s formerly good self, that he was a good man broken physically by an accident, and then corrupted by a dependence of painkillers. As it is, that’s not true. As the prisoner begs and pleads to be rescued, water already lapping around his neck, McDonagh shouts down that he doesn’t want to get his very expensive underwear dirty, and then starts making bets with his partner about how long before the water takes him. Yes, in the brief moments we see him before his accident, he’s still an amoral dick, just without the metaphorical spinal injury. He does come round and do the right thing, almost crippling himself doing so, and that would seem to be where his desire to do the right thing ends. Once burned, twice shy.
For the rest of the film, McDonagh is a hunched degenerate junkie and thoroughly abusive presence. He steals drugs from junkies, dealers and the police evidence room; he harasses a girl into masturbating him in a parking lot at gunpoint, whilst her boyfriend watches; he gets high on any drug going every chance he gets; he blackmails a local sports star to help him win; he even threatens to shoot an old woman, whilst cutting of the oxygen of another old woman, for information. He really is a nasty piece of work. However, there is some kind of balance to him. For all his corruption, he’s still a damn good cop; and he does find some solace in the arms of Frankie, his girlfriend. The fact that she’s a prostitute doesn’t bother him. She accepts him for his faults.
Throughout, Herzog’s tone in the film is one of a dark comedy, with a regular excursion into mild surrealism. Only someone like him would give a few minutes of the film to close-ups of alligators and iguanas as they stare back at us, the action having seemingly halted briefly in the background. There’s even a point later when, immediately after a shootout, McDonagh watches the soul of one of the fallen continue to breakdance until he’s shot again. It’s absurd, but hilariously so. And there’s also the feeling that he couldn’t care less about the story, which acts merely as an excuse to follow this very messed-up individual around. Nowhere is this more evident than in the giddy manner in which everything is tied up in about two minutes towards the end, every character grinning manically as they relay their news.
As Terence McDonagh, Nicolas Cage is better here than he had been in a long time. He’s always been one of the most fearless actors going, but this has often worked against him. Never one to shy away from intensity and going over the edge, this is an approach that saw him appear like some cackling maniac. However, this makes him the perfect choice for McDonagh. There are few other actors, if any that could match him for his sheer force of crazy. He really does offer a great unpredictability to proceedings, which is exactly what’s needed. In this role, for this director, Cage is outstanding.
Okay, I’ve stalled enough. I said before that I thought that there is something to be gained from a comparison. If we are going to compare the two films, what happens?
Ferrara’s film is a dark, grimy, very heavy film, driven by the torment of a bad soul shown the possibility of redemption. The concern with religion and guilt soaks the film through to the bone. The central character is so tortured primarily because he is so incredibly weak-willed, a defect that none can cure except for God. However, Herzog’s film steers clear of such concerns. His world is less dark and grimy, rather more possessed of a bright but still mottled, slightly rotten visual sensibility, almost like the damp has soaked into the lens. The use of religious iconography is still present, but to a far lesser degree, and in fact holds no sway over proceedings whatsoever. Although Herzog claims that he had never seen any of Ferrara’s work before, it’s almost as if he has consciously adopted an aspect of his film just to show how little it matters. This New Orleans is a city that God abandoned long ago, leaving it to the animals and criminals that chose to hang around. As such, any redemption experienced comes from the characters themselves, and not some deity. Just like McDonagh’s attempts to find a spoon hidden somewhere in his father’s shed, the ability to change comes from looking inward. Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is a moralistic film; Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant is a humanistic film. The two films don’t really rest comfortably side by side, but rather in opposition. As such, they can be considered as separate entities, but there is still an interesting exercise to be had in going over their differences.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is a bracing and downright invigorating film, pervaded by a wonderfully dark humour, and holding an interesting treatise on a corrupt character that is driven by stirring and superb performance from Nicolas Cage. I tell you what, these bad cops sure make for some damn good watching.