Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

08 March, 2010

Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

The first thought that came to my mind when the lights came up after Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans had finished was "I wanted more iguanas."

We should perhaps take Herzog's proclamation that he's never seen Abel Ferrara's 1992 original with a grain of salt but he certainly came up with something very different. And he added iguanas.

The movie begins with Nicolas Cage as Terence McDonagh and Val Kilmer's Stevie Pruit pondering the fate of an inmate still stuck in his cell as the waters of Hurricane Katrina fill the cell block. After all is said and done, McDonagh takes the plunge to rescue the guy. The film picks up 6 months later after the waters have receded and McDonagh finds out that his altruistic dive has thrown out his back.

McDonagh is a gambler and a drug addict whose girlfriend is a prostitute. He likes to shake down kids leaving bars and, generally speaking, not much better than a lot of the people he arrests. But there's always work to be done and he finds himself heading an investigation into the murders of a family of Senegalese immigrants.

His investigation into the drug-trafficking underbelly gives the film one part police procedural but the other parts are all about McDonagh's decent into perdition. And Cage goes wonderfully overboard in pursuit of the latter.

For starters, he's clad in a suit that's a few sizes too big for his rather gaunt frame. Jacked up on coke, he talks a million miles per minute as he pursues the murderer. But, when heroine comes onto the scene, Cage pulls a 180. His purposeful stride becomes a Frankenstein lurch with his arms disconcertingly extended before him as in the scene where he is demoted to evidence room duty. This is scenery-chewing Nicolas Cage at its best.

"What are these fucking iguanas doing on my coffee table?" asks McDonagh during a stake out. As "Release Me" plays, we are treated to some extreme close-ups of the iguanas as our cop looks down at them helplessly. The hallucinatory lizard returns towards the end of the film after the big shoot out. Some bad guys are lying on the floor dead when McDonagh says, "Shoot'em again, his soul's still dancing." We cut to the bodies only to see that one of the baddies is break dancing next to one of the corpses as an iguana traipses on by to the tune of Sonny Terry's "Old Lost John" which also provided the soundtrack to the famous chicken dance scene in Herzog's Stroszek. Such scenes are odd but they sit quite comfortably next to Cage's over the top performance.

After our viewing, The Dulcinea noted that the film was nothing like she thought it would be. Instead it was much weirder. For my part, I was hoping that it would have been even stranger.

Aside from more iguanas, I wished that Herzog had let the New Orleans ravaged by the waters from the broken levees take a larger role, had let it almost become a character itself which feeds McDonagh's addictions. But the city itself tends to stick to the periphery. There is a scene when McDonagh approaches a state trooper to try and get his bookie's daughter's traffic ticket taken care of. The trooper is attending to a vehicle that his a gator and rolled over. This is classic Herzog. We first see the mortally wounded gator sitting in the middle of the road, one leg still twitching and the scene ends with that stretch of the highway framed in the mouth of another alligator on the side of the road. Herzog has reminded us that Nature is a cruel mistress in recent documentaries and I wish a little more of that had leaked into Bad Lieutenant.

My other gripe is that Val Kilmer is drastically underused. He appears in the very opening of the film but gets precious little screen time after that. It's a shame because he's a great actor who has done some great parts as something less than a straight guy. I guess I was just disappointed as he was there at the get-go which set up the expectation that his Pruit would be someone that McDonagh would play off of as the film progressed. Not so.

Despite these gripes, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was a blast. Cage really let it loose and I can only imagine that this part was a lot of fun to do. The film may be a bit on the Herzog-lite side, but it still provided some healthy doses of absurdity and I'm not sure that McDonagh's laugh meant that he was redeemed or not.
|| Palmer, 6:46 PM


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