Bottom Line: Brilliant auteur Werner Herzog tragically remakes a 1992 masterpiece as a messy genre picture.
Long before its theatrical premiere, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans clinched the dubious award of raising more eyebrows than any other production this year. No one ever expected a team of young producers to remake one of the masterpieces of the 1990s with legendary director Werner Herzog and infamous actor Nicholas Cage.
In 1992, Abel Ferrara wrote and directed Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel. The film’s unnamed lieutenant was confronted by his sins while investigating the rape of a nun. This graphic depiction of a New York cop mixed up in hard drugs, sexuality and violence was the most profound expression of Catholic guilt since Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.
Herzog removes religion, relocates to post-Katrina New Orleans and polishes the rough edges for his 2009 remake. Nicholas Cage stars as the law-bending, gambling-addicted, coke-snorting Terrence McDonagh. His lover is a prostitute (Eva Mendes), and he has no problem stealing from the property room of the police department for a good hit. In short, McDonagh initially investigates a mass murder but ends up partnering with the crime’s mastermind (Xzibit) to make money and score coke.
While Keitel focused on the inner struggle and redemption of the original lieutenant, Cage accentuates the absurdity of his character’s corruption. With a gun visibly tucked in the front of his pants, Cage’s hunched-over cop is often a joy to watch because the actor brings absolute madness to the character. Sleep-deprived and desperate, he cuts off the oxygen supply of an elderly woman and sticks a gun to the head of an intensive care worker to find a witness for his investigation. It is a wonderful Herzog moment in which the audience responds with a mixture of disgust and laughter, and Cage is the reason why it works so well.
Unfortunately Cage’s character never has the ambiguities or substance of the original lieutenant. The one-note joke of his madness never develops, instead tiring by the end of the film. His hysterical laughter under the influence of drugs is ultimately forced and unconvincing. The past few years have seen Nicholas Cage randomly punch women and preposterously see into the future, and this performance disappointingly can be categorized with those abominations.
The film’s post-Katrina context feels forced and contrived. Director Werner Herzog has always been so great at turning the setting of a film into a character, sometimes the main focus. Kuwait will never be as hellish as depicted in Lessons of Darkness, and Wisconsin will never again be as oppressively dull as in Stroszek. With Bad Lieutenant, the decision to relocate to New Orleans does not make sense. The city merely feels like a superficial backdrop for the film’s action.
Herzog and Cage could have made a sleazily ironic masterpiece with this remake, but they fumbled largely because of the inconsistencies of William M. Finkelstein’s screenplay. Finkelstein has previously penned episodes of NYPD Blue and Law & Order, and a potentially wicked vision of a remake is instead tame and predictable. The movie shies away from the drugs and the sex which the original so intently focused on, even if that meant an NC-17 rating. The elements essential to the character are present but taken far too lightly — completely unexpected from a director as edgy as Werner Herzog.
When asked about the remake at a Cannes press conference, original director Ferrara infamously responded, “I wish these people die in hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.”
It is difficult to tell whether or not Ferrara was being serious, especially considering the movie had not been made at the time. However, Herzog’s version is such a butchering of Ferrara’s deeply personal film that it is hardly a remake, featuring a different story altogether. Filmmakers are entitled to take liberties when reinterpreting a work, yet there should be a sense of respect for the original work. Because of the intentional humor of the remake, those who remade the film seem little concerned about the seriousness of a film originally about the rape of a run. Even though Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is sometimes hysterical and hypnotic, the inconsistent final product lacks the depth which would have held this movie together.
Director Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans will be playing in select theaters in Chicago including the Landmark.