SHORT TAKE: “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (**)

Posted by · 5:19 am · September 4th, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New OrleansVenice Film Festival

Keen students of the MTV Movie Awards will be aware that the ceremony added a highly necessary and prestigious award to their lineup for “Best WTF Moment.” I like to imagine that Werner Herzog is aware of this, as his new film “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (that “The” is no typo – that’s how the title appears onscreen) appears to have been carefully tailored to fill every nominee slot in that category next year.

An iguana bursts into a bluesy rendition of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me!” Nicolas Cage shares his lucky crack pipe! A man’s soul breakdances after its owner is fatally shot! Iguanas! Nicolas Cage cuts off an octogenarian woman’s oxygen supply! More freaky shit involving iguanas!

It’s been many years since Herzog’s narrative features exuded the sure-footed directorial aplomb of his documentaries, but there is, somewhat surprisingly, a fairly clear artistic objective behind “The Bad Lieutenant”: to make a cult film, the kind of midnight movie treasured by trash geeks, stoners and the occasional leftfield auteurist alike.

On these terms, one might view Herzog’s film as a measured success: its eccentricities are at the very least diverting, and there’s a smattering of genuinely funny off-kilter dialogue, even if I seemed to be the only person in the audience laughing at lines like: “Whatever I take is prescription … except for the heroin.” (On the other hand, wild applause followed the scene where Cage’s cop mentally and physically tortures a pair of old women. Go figure.)

But Herzog seems to have missed the fundamental law that true cult films aren’t made so by their directors, but by their audiences, whose interpretation of, and relationship to, the material needn’t line up with that of its creator.

“The Bad Lieutenant,” by contrast, seems to strain for off-center appeal: none of its boldest strokes appear to come from a genuine place inside the director, but from a less integral eagerness to surprise.

Herzog may claim never to have watched Abel Ferrara’s original 1992 “Bad Lieutenant” – with which the film shares the idea of a junkie cop, the fleeting presence of Harvey Keitel (unless my sleep-deprived eyes were deceiving me) and little else – but perhaps he should have: not only do the formal and thematic extremities of Ferrara’s film far exceed those of Herzog’s jokier effort, but they are underpinned by a sincere personal preoccpation with religion and morality.

Herzog’s film, by contrast, is about nothing but its own strangeness. There’s certainly little narrative to speak of: a running murder investigation and Cage’s sketchy romance with a heart-of-gold hooker (Eva Mendes, far better than the role demands) form the softest of spines – though the absurdly perfunctory resolution, which also dispenses with the few stylistic flourishes this muddy-looking film already possessed, suggests Herzog has lost interest in the material altogether.

Fortunately, Nicolas Cage exhibits enough commitment to the cause for them both, jumpstarting scene after scene with kerr-azy gesticulating, contorted posture and mile-a-minute dialogue riffs with unflagging energy, bizarrely picking up Pacino-esque vocal affectations about halfway through. It’s not a good performance, exactly, but it’s a compellingly weird one, which might just represent this oddly unengaged film’s best shot at midnight-show immortality … or at least an MTV “WTF” award. Unless the iguanas beat him to it.

→ 16 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

16 responses so far

  • 1 9-04-2009 at 5:30 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I should add in the comments that Eva Mendes is blazing hot in this.

  • 2 9-04-2009 at 5:38 am

    david said...

    LOL!! I can’t wait to see this…I’m sure I’ll laugh my ass off. Maybe this film can take it’s place right alongside “Even Dwarfs Started Small” in Herzog’s filmography.

    Did you not like “Rescue Dawn” Guy??

  • 3 9-04-2009 at 5:46 am

    Cde. said...

    “Whatever I take is prescription … except for the heroin.”

    At the very least, this line is brilliant.

    Herzog seems to be going through a very strange phase…even by his standards.

  • 4 9-04-2009 at 5:50 am

    Cde. said...

    It must be said that the title ‘The Bad Lieutenant’ is also brilliant.

  • 5 9-04-2009 at 6:49 am

    Mike_M said...

    Interesting review, I am even more looking forward to this film now.

    Rescue Dawn was great…

  • 6 9-04-2009 at 10:49 am

    Kline said...

    Guy, have you learned nothing from Pauline Kael? Your carnal responses to a film damn well should be in your review. If you find something erotic than it should be in your review otherwise you are lying by not revealing your true emotions and therefore giving us a distanced review, which is absolutely worthless. If a review isn’t deeply personal than it’s pointless.

  • 7 9-04-2009 at 11:53 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I wouldn’t call it “carnal,” exactly, but point taken, Kline. Different styles, that’s all — I’m hardly lying.

  • 8 9-04-2009 at 12:00 pm

    Joel said...

    I could’ve predicted this from that trailer (which I hated), but I’m curious to see what Herzog has in order for us here, so I may check this one out.

  • 9 9-04-2009 at 12:07 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Oh, and thoughts on Herzog’s SECOND film at the fest coming right up…

  • 10 9-04-2009 at 7:51 pm

    Anonymous said...

    Just to let you guys know, rottentomatoes has 3 positive reviews for the film from Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and Screen International. As much as I respect Guy’s take, I still think this film could be good. This time last year, I remember Guy posted a similarly scathing review of Frost/Nixon, and that turned out to be pretty great in my (and most critics’) opinions, so I’m stilling keeping some hope alive.

  • 11 9-04-2009 at 8:29 pm

    Chase Kahn said...

    “Frost/Nixon” sucked…

  • 12 9-04-2009 at 9:11 pm

    david said...

    It sounds as if it’s designed to be a very bizarre, intentionally off the wall, cult film. So if you view it, in that perspective, you might find it has a great deal of entertainment value.

  • 13 9-05-2009 at 2:15 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    David: He absolutely has. My point is that I don’t think great cult films are designed as such.

    Anonymous: Absolutely. As always when I write reviews, it’s my opinion alone I’m expressing … I make my broader claims for it. And quite a few people I’ve spoken to have some affection for the film.

  • 14 9-26-2009 at 9:53 pm

    Kiruha said...

    Хорошо, давайте обсудим это в отдельной теме. Хотя это не столь важно.