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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans

My notes on The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Producer Ed Pressman has always had a knack for hanging on to the properties he initiates with demented auteurs, and recycling them after a discreet interval – he handed off a remake of Brian DePalma’s Sisters to Douglas Buck and spun The Crow into a franchise. At first sight, this project seems like insanity cubed: get Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage together to remake an Abel Ferrara-Harvey Keitel movie which was already about as far out as a mainstream film could get. Having seen the results, I think Pressman should look for more insane auteur/actor combinations and do restage this story in other cities around America … hell, the world: Gaspar Noé and Vincent Cassell’s Mauvais Lieutenant: Paris … Richard Stanley and Sharlto Copley’s Bad Kop: Joburg … the possibilities are endless, just so long as we stay away from Dario Argento and Adrien Brody’s Polizia Maledizia: Roma.

Herzog has claimed that he hasn’t seen Ferrara’s film – which, weird to say, is nearly two decades’ old – and this isn’t a remake: it’s probable that the first part is true, in which case how would he know whether the script by William M. Finkelstein was a remake or not? Actually, it is: the big case is the drug-related execution shooting of an entire family of Senegalese illegals rather than the gang rape of a nun, the setting is post-Katrina New Orleans rather than New York City, and the Catholic element is dropped – but, as before, a police lieutenant works a redball case while his drug-use spirals out of control, hassles club kids after dark for drugs and sex, shacks up with a hooker who seems to be a source of income, and gets in deeper and deeper with a bookie after a run of misjudged sports bets. There are more points of similarity between this and Ferrara’s film than between, say, the 2007 and 1980 versions of Prom Night. It’s just that the sensibility is different, and that makes this a valid film in its own right – by comparison, Ferrara’s movie (which I really like) is a formal spiral into despair with ambiguous redemption at the end; this is a dark comedy which shoots off in all directions, and winds up with a cynical happy ending in the vein of The Player as, in a marvellous scene, all of the protagonist’s problems miraculously evaporate after his worst behaviour and a canny deployment of his lucky crack pipe (‘so it all worked out in the end.’).

The last Herzog remake was Nosferatu, which might explain why Cage adopts a Max Schreckish posture as Lieutentant Terry McDonagh’s drug intake – initially necessary to combat chronic back-pains sustained while rescuing a drowning prisoner from a snake-filled cage during the flood – gets worse (the vampire metaphor was in Ferrara’s script too) but this is as full-on a Cage turn as Leaving Las Vegas or Vampire’s Kiss, full of perfect little moments, non sequitur laughs, junkie buzz, strange asides (phantom iguanas hogging the camera, seen only by the cop and us), skewed line-readings and near-silent movie physical expressiveness (Cage is on record as admiring John Barrymore’s Mr Hyde). Eva Mendes replaces Zoe Tamerlis/Tamerlaine/Lund as the loyal hooker, who is here a call-girl, while Val Kilmer gets to play straight man as the cop partner, Brad Dourif is the bookie, Fairuza Balk plays a uniformed (and black underwear/boots-sporting) highway patrol cop, Jennifer Coolidge is a boozy stepmother, Shea Whigham has an indelible two-scene bit as a bragging would-be bigshot which would win supporting actor awards if they weren’t earmarked for stars trying to show mock humility, and xbit (some sort of vocal music performer, m’lud) is the smug drugpin McDonagh gets close to and betrays.

It sometimes looks like a regular cop movie, but then breaks frame with more iguanas, the aftermath of a car smash caused by a squashed alligator, a just-shot gangster’s breakdancing soul (McDonagh advises more shooting), the comically over-the-top Mike Hammer-like interrogation of a frail old woman in a nursing home and her devoted nurse, an anecdote about a lost treasure from childhood which pays off when the non-silver spoon is recovered, a final trip to a calming aquarium which gives some circularity as McDonagh meets the new-reformed con he saved in the first film. Also, it’s a great post-Katrina New Orleans movie – unfussily touring the still-devastated city, noting potential for redevelopment (even if the krewe stupidly dump a corpse where their boss wants to build condos) and the all-pervasive water damage. As in the Ferrara/Keitel movie (where the cop doesn’t have a name), the protagonist’s character flaws are legion but he’s still seriously on the job (‘just because he likes to get high doesn’t mean he’s stopped being a police’, Kilmer’s character tells the gangster when he is betrayed and arrested by the lieutenant): many movies have done the bit where the cynical cop is personally motivated to pursue a hideous criminal, but few are as sweet, offhand or heartbreaking as the tiny bit where Cage reads aloud a poem a slain Senegalese kid has written about his pet fish and then picks up the water-glass in which the fish swims (we get a lot of close-ups of blank non-mammalian eyes in this film). And he did get into all this by literally diving in – ruining expensive underwear – to save someone he could as easily have let drown, which is almost where the Ferrara film leaves off. Keitel is martyred after a vision of Jesus; Cage is promoted to bad Captain.

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