From the moment it was announced, there was something a tad loony about the idea of remaking — or revisiting or reinventing or whatever they want to call it — Abel Ferrara’s 1992 “Bad Lieutenant,” with Werner Herzog, no less, directing. Well, lo and behold, there’s also something rather loony about the finished film itself. But there’s also a sort of deadpan zaniness, stemming from a steadfast conviction in its own absurdity, that gives “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” a strange distinction all its own. Not at all an art film, the picture lacks sufficient action to sate the appetites of sensation seekers, but star Nicolas Cage’s name means enough to offer some short-run B.O. traction and good home-viewing market returns.
Even though the original “Bad Lieutenant” was strictly cult fare, the title does carry a certain cultural resonance. The second American film to sport the NC-17 rating, Ferrara’s film was ballsy, raw and drenched in Catholic guilt and renunciation motifs, as well as loads of explicit drug taking by a New York cop spiraling toward a personal hell.
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Herzog isn’t into much of the above; nor is he the sort of visual stylist keen to put his own imprint on the history of film noir or the detective genre. To the contrary, New Orleans is a bright, if blighted, city, and Herzog approaches it, as well as the depredations of the title character, with a straight face and unblinking lens, the better to catch a glimpse of the links connecting Katrina, the corruption of authority as seen through the outrageous behavior of the lieutenant, and the money, which lands mostly in the wrong places.
If one watched this movie without knowing the identity of the director, it would admittedly be difficult to give it much credit, since it is so indifferently made, erratically acted and dramatically diffuse. Not in 20 years or more has Herzog exercised the sort of formal control over his dramatic features that he has over his documentaries, and for a considerable stretch, it remains unclear how one is to assess the helmer’s handling of vet TV crime writer William Finkelstein’s pulpy scenario. The film is offbeat, silly, disarming and loopy all at the same time, and viewers will decide to ride with that or just give up on it, according to mood and disposition.
Already on Vicodin for back pain, Cage’s Lt. Terence McDonaugh pursues the case of five Senegalese illegals rubbed out in an obvious drug-world hit. The search for their supplier takes place across some of the scuzziest stretches of the Big Easy, and all signs point to an elusive operator named Big Fate (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner).
But all along, the mystery takes a backseat to the lieutenant’s increasingly erratic behavior. Hunched over due to his back problems and customarily dressed in a slightly oversized suit with a large revolver stuck straight down the front of his pants, Terence resembles nobody so much as Nosferatu, the protagonist of one of Herzog’s key films 30 years ago. At one moment, Terence is shaking down upscale clubgoers for their drugs and screwing their dates in front of them, then rushing to his unlikely prostie g.f., Frankie (Eva Mendes), for a coke antidote to the heroin he’s accidentally snorted. He also, as in the original film, runs up a frightening debt with reckless sports betting.
Weird little interludes see Terence taking up again with a hot-to-trot former ladyfriend (a very good Fairuza Balk), assuming responsibility for a large dog and dumping him on Frankie, and participating in some bizarre shenanigans involving alligators and iguanas photographed in extreme, handheld closeup by Herzog himself.
Whatever else one might think of Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” it was a story about wrenching guilt driven by personal demons, and Harvey Keitel fearlessly threw himself into the title role. The new film, which was backed by the same producer, Edward R. Pressman, betrays nothing close to such levels of deep commitment by either Herzog or Cage, who mostly bide their time with riffs on the narrative until close to the end. Once Terence hits bottom — he’s totally drugged out, put on suspension at work, owes a ton to his bookie, threatened by thugs and faced with losing his girlfriend — the film gets giddy and ends up being, of all things, a fairy tale with a wrap-up no one would expect.
If Cage was looking for a vehicle in which his hyper-emoting would be dramatically justifiable, he found one here. Sometimes he’s so over the top it’s funny, which one can hope was intentional. Unfortunately, there’s no rapport between him and Mendes, and their physical encounters seem so tentative as to resemble rehearsals. Val Kilmer is completely wasted as a fellow cop — it’s too bad Herzog didn’t bother exploring the actor’s capacity for comedy — but Joiner exhales charisma as the rising drug lord Terence might consider joining rather than beating.
An unglamorized, sun-baked New Orleans is vividly presented for what it is, warts and all, but still exudes its particular flavor. Production values are average.