Venice 09: The Bad Lieutenant!
Posted on Friday September 4, 2009, 13:44 by Damon Wise in Cannes Film Festival
Waiting in the queue for The Bad Lieutenant Port Of Call: New Orleans (to give it its full title), I couldn't decide what to think. After all, it's a remake of an Abel Ferrara film, which can only be a bad thing. But it's made by Werner Herzog, which can only be a good thing. It turned over in my mind with a mechanical precision – bad, good, bad – until the credits began, appropriately enough, with a shot of a snake swimming in black water. The scene, it turns out, is a New Orleans cop shop in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the holding cell is filling up with water, rising to neck level on its lone inmate. Upstairs, soon-to-be promoted police sergeant Terence McDonough (Nicolas Cage) is talking business with a colleague (Val Kilmer), and when they realise there's still someone down there, there's a darkly comic scene in which they wonder whether or not to leave the poor guy there. Will Terence do something good? Bad? Good? Bad? Finally, despite wearing $55 cotton boxer shorts, he jumps into the filthy water to spring the jailbird. It bodes well for a film that, despite some considerable flaws and a daring, out-there performance from Cage, is pretty good too.
Ironically, the flaws it has are the opposite of Ferrara's original. Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant was serious to the point of hilarity, and Harvey Keitel's ridiculous naked sob scene, in a pretentious Christ-like pose, remains its most indelible image. This Bad Lieutenant, though, is a deadpan black comedy that suffers only from some serious credibility issues in its depiction of police duties. Returning to the plot, the film picks up six months after after the prison rescue, with McDonough being promoted to lieutenant. Somehow, perhaps as a result of his opening-scene heroism, he has suffered a back injury that requires serious drugs, and we can only assume this is the trigger for what's about to happen. Arriving at the scene of a multiple, execution-style homicide, McDonough is already on a slippery slope, snorting coke from the back of his hand. At this point he's still a decent cop, chewing out workmates for abusing procedure. But this doesn't last long. When his drug supply dries up – CCTV cameras are installed in the evidence room – McDonough has to find new sources.
From here, the film becomes a nightmarish farce, with McDonough jumping the rails in his increasingly manic attempt to nail local criminal kingpin Big Fate, who clearly masterminded the murders but left no evidence. In this respect, The Bad Lieutenant resembles any other crime thriller, but if you imagine any other crime thriller on cocaine – and marijuana, and prescription drugs and LSD – you'd only be halfway there. Central to it is Cage's fantastic performance. I know he's not to all tastes, but his work here is up there with his hammy best, not the schmaltzy, serious stuff he does as a Hollywood star for hire. There are several unforgettable scenes here, including one in which he terrorises an elderly woman and her care assistant, yelling, “You selfish cunt! You should drop dead right now!” There's also a scene – taken more or less straight from Ferrara's original – in which he stops an innocent couple and turns a drug bust into something way more perverse and shocking.
As regards similarities to Ferrara's film, only the character is the same: McDonough is a drug-using cop with a hooker girlfriend and a gambling problem. But the way his future pans out is SO not the way it did in Ferrara's guilt-fixated original. I won't spoil it, but this is where the comedy becomes much, much broader, slightly marring the dryness of the humour that preceded it. But if you go with the flow, like that slippery snake in the New Orleans murk, The Bad Lieutenant is a really good, fun ride. There are loads of things wrong if you choose to dwell on them – no police department in its right mind wouldn't comment on a usually earnest officer hallucinating on the job, or turning up to work on heroin – but this is, after, a work of fiction and not a documentary. And it's easy to forget too just how competent a director Herzog is when he's working in the mainstream; aside from a few wilfully bizarre shots of reptiles, The Bad Lieutenant is a very slick, very superior slice of pulp.