Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" Review

I might have felt underprepared for a comprehensive "Bad Lieutenant" review in having not seen the Abel Ferrara original, but then again, Herzog claims not to have either. The maverick German filmmaker is probably best known for his documentary work, though four of his last five features following 2005's "Grizzly Man" have been narratives. Whether this about-face comes on the heels of his disappointing Oscar loss to the crowd-pleasing "March of the Penguins," or perhaps from a well-deserved impression of medium mastery, the past several years have seen Werner Herzog at his most commercial. So along comes his pseudo-remake of "Bad Lieutenant," which the auspicious director would rather refer to by its sterile subtitle, "Port of Call: New Orleans," arriving with early reviews comparing the piece to the unrestrained work of his early career.

As a portrait of lawlessness, Herzog definitely borrows from his own "Even Dwarves Started Small," which is in truth a much stranger and more perfectly dystopian film, but "Bad Lieutenant" is no slouch in the bizarre department either, coupled with the sort of unhinged, loopy performance only Nicolas Cage can deliver. The guy has become a critical punching bag of late, as his recent overexposure and generally undiscerning taste in projects has overshadowed the gems of his career. Great comic performances in films like "Raising Arizona," "Moonstruck," and "Adaptation," will prime your palette for Cage as Terence McDonagh, and Cage is in fine, grandiose form under Herzog.

Their relationship is really mutually beneficial, as Herzog wrings the script, which may or may not have had as light a tone as his film, into the sort of winking, campy genre satire in which Cage's proclivity for stagey, caricatural performances finds a perfect home. You can feel the comic energy bouncing back and forth between the two as Cage summons a diabolically corrupt super-villain, and Herzog, along with longtime cinematography partner Peter Zeitlinger, paint "Fear & Loathing" esque drug-induced psychedelic reptilian music videos over New Orleans as a beautiful, crumbling Babylon. Klaus Kinski be damned, I think Herzog may have found a new best friend.

If there is a complaint to be had in the teaming of Herzog and Cage, it's that both are having too much fun to worry themselves with substance. "Bad Lieutenant" is a perfectly entertaining film, but is emphatically only that. This isn't a deep, incisive examination of the human condition. It's not "Fitzcarraldo." It's satire. Herzog's cynicism is front and center, prominently portrayed via McDonagh's deplorable behavior and incredible fortune. The plot frequently takes a back seat to his antics, which amuses in surplus, but is distinguished among Cage's repertoire only in that he portrays a cartoon character in a cartoony film. Here, his zaniness is a congruent piece of the jigsaw. Unfortunately, creating a character and a performance as memorable as Cage's McDonagh sets an unwritten precedent in the pacing that reduces the film to a crawl when the officer isn't one-upping his unabashed, ruthless insanity, and because of this, "Bad Lieutenant" occasionally drags.

The pacing issue is the greatest flaw of the film. There aren't quite enough jokes per minute for it to function as a stand alone comedy, and the comparatively serious moments may leave some viewers unfamiliar with Herzog's worldview and snide direction completely baffled. For Herzog connoisseurs like myself, however, the man is as interesting and unpredictable as ever, and watching him unfurl even a minor addition to his filmography is compelling. He's found an excellent creative partner in Cage, though it would be equally interesting to see them collaborate on a more straight-faced film.

Some may label "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" as inconsequential, egotistical silliness, and those are arguments I can't necessarily rebuff, but I think Herzog is the kind of director who's earned the right to goof off. For the most part, it's demented and entertaining stuff.


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