Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Friday Request Line: Bad Liutenant Port of Call New Orleans

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 19, 2010

“Andrew… maybe you haven’t seen it yet, but I would love to read an extensive IITS take on “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” Watched it a third time two nights ago and it’s still a modern classic.” – Garret

First off, thanks for actually giving me a reason to finally buckle down and watch this movie. I’ve been meaning to see Bad Lieutenant since it came out, but for a variety of reasons (mostly because I suck the only new movies I watch these days are ones I can catch at my local multiplex in between my day and night job on Thursdays) I never actually got around to it. Shameful, really.

Anyway, I imagine that there weren’t many people who watched BL:POCNO and said to themselves “Huh, good movie, but I wish it had been a little more out there.” This is, after all, a movie that features the line “Shoot him again, his soul is still dancing,” followed by a dead gangster’s spirit doing windmills on the floor. But fair, or not, that was close to my reaction to this movie. Not that it wasn’t great, and not that it wasn’t fucking nuts in its own right. But I’m sorry, you get Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog together, you give them a big budget, and you have them remake a movie like the original Bad Lieutenant, and a man can’t help but have a certain level of expectation. And as weird, as disturbing and as absolutely hilarious as this movie was on occasion, it just didn’t quite live up to those expectations for me.

Let me explain in further detail. I was a big fan of the original Bad Lieutenant, although probably for none of the reasons that  director Abel Ferrera hoped. I was less interested in all the Fallen Man’s Quest for Redemption shit than I was in the movie’s bizarre alternate history where the real-life awful Dodgers and worse Mets were dueling it out in the ’92 NLCS, and in all the horrific and inimitable dying-moose sounds that Harvey Keitel made while sobbing through the movie’s last fifteen minutes. Mostly I just enjoyed watching the Bad Lieutenant being Bad, performing random acts of emotional and physical brutality on an unsuspecting public while I wondered how he was able to hold down an actual department job when being Bad seemed to be something of a full-time commitment in its own right. Cut out all the church scenes and shit and the movie could’ve been a true American classic.

And that’s basically what I was hoping for here. I wanted the new Bad Lieutenant to be as plotless, anarchic, and thoroughly off the rails as the cinematic medium would allow. I just wanted to see the lieutenant be a miserable human being for two hours, with no attempt to make any sort of comment on him or the police force or society in general. I wanted non-stop Badness. And if I had to pick one actor and one director to carry out this new project, I’m pretty sure I would’ve picked Nic Cage and Werner Herzog. Cage has given more brilliantly unhinged, drugged out, “does he still realize that we’re making a movie here?”-type performances in recent film than just about anyone in the past 20 years, and Herzog seemed like the ideal iconoclastic, societally contemptuous director to guide him through the process. Add in the fact that Herzog claimed to have not even seen the movie he was supposedly remaking, and to not even have any idea who Ferrera is, and I saw no reason why Bad Lieutenant shouldn’t have ended up as the most insane and inexplicable movie ever released by a semi-major production studio.

Not that it was that far off, to be fair. Nicolas Cage was predictably inspired, whether extorting sex and crack from teenage clubbers, bullying information out of old ladies in retirement homes, ranting incoherently about the “nigger elk” or just hallucinating about imaginary iguanas. His hair alone was Oscar-worthy, a fantastically long and sleazy-looking cut that he keeps pressing back in place over the course of the movie, and which I hope he ends up keeping for the rest of his career. The supporting cast was similarly strong, with memorable turns from Brad Dourif, Val Kilmer and Xzibit, and with Eva Mendes and Fairuza Balk proving strong candidates for the ’09 Annette From Saturday Night Fever Good Sportsmanship Award. (My personal favorite, though, had to be Shea Whigham as a shit-talking client of prostitute Mendes’s, who finished every phrase with “Whoa” or “Oh yeah“). It was certainly a rather entertaining couple of hours.

But for the most part, the movie just felt too…I dunno, like a movie. To be fair, there were parts that were no doubt absolutely mindblowing to anyone who watched the movie expecting a basic corrupt cop Nic Cage flick. The scene where Cage and his cronies silently wait on a stake out for a couple minutes while a pair of Cage’s imaginary iguanas appear to be singing (or at least loudly imagining) a version of “Please Release Me” was impressively disconcerting. Cage’s speech to Mendes about hiding a spoon that he found with a metal detector as a kid somewhere in a shed, and Mendes’s amazed response of “It could be ANYWHERE!” was pretty hilarious. And everything going right at the end for Cage for no particular reason–about the time in the movie when he should have been fired, strung out and probably dead, he instead starts winning all his bets, putting down the big case, and starting a quiet domestic life with Mendes–was a nice little Fuck You to audience expectation. But basically, there was a plot. It involved characters. I’m not sure what kind of nuttiness I was expecting, exactly, but I was hoping for something completely unprecedented, and this wasn’t quite that. I’ll let you know if my opinion changes on the third watching, though.

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5 Responses to “Friday Request Line: Bad Liutenant Port of Call New Orleans”

  1. Garret said

    Thanks for writing this. I especially enjoyed reading it in light of my fourth (OH YEAH) watching of the film last night.

    I get a lot of what you’re saying here. Besides getting in the way of the good stuff, the plot is also kind of barely developed and there are segments of the film that teeter on the edge of dragging the whole thing down because of it. A few scenes in the police station, maybe. I remain absolutely satisfied, though. There are just too many spectacular moments, even if they’re small things like facial expressions or Cage changing his voice halfway through for no apparent reason. I sort of feel like the occasional spots of draggyness actually enhance the film’s ability to really immerse the viewer in the Cage character being doped up out of his mind, barely awake to process reality, and just sort of slumping his way through his job. Many of the greatest moments appear in the form of inexplicable outbursts… tantrums, hallucinations, etc. The plot serves as the swampy muck that these moments gloriously emerge from. Personally, I was taken aback by both how off the rails and how strangely subtle (“underwhelming” for you, I suppose) many aspects of the movie managed to be.

    Glad to hear that despite the mild disappointment reflected in this piece, you still would classify it as “great.” In the contexts of modern-day cinema as a whole and also Werner Herzog’s filmography, the reputation of this thing is probably only going to strengthen with time.

  2. Erick said

    Also glad to see this written up.

    “And if I had to pick one actor and one director to carry out this new project, I’m pretty sure I would’ve picked Nic Cage and Werner Herzog.”

    Herzog isn’t really a crazy or over the top director… he’s really characterized more by his subtlety if anything. Maybe you would like to see the movie remade again by… Dusan Makavejev? Takashi Miike? Lars von Trier?

  3. intensities said

    I was thinking that Von Trier / Pacino would’ve been the only other combo that would’ve rivaled it. Herzog not so much for an OTT quality as just what I’ve perceived to be a general disdain for humanity in the (admittedly few) movies I’ve seen of his.

  4. Erick said

    Ha, that’s interesting. With Herzog (and even moreso with Haneke) I feel like there’s a lot more humanism than some critics give credit for. Although Herzog does vary from film to film. Grizzly Man or Little Dieter Needs to Fly are pretty intensely humanistic, imho. Aguirre or Stroszek… it’s more debatable.

  5. billy said

    Hasn’t Neil LaBute been the standard-bearer for Cage off the rails?

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