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Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (First Look Pictures, R)

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blcage.jpgHerzog’s trademarks are unmistakably clear in the film; the big one is Cage’s broad performance; pretty much any other director would have reeled him in. Good thing Herzog didn’t, because Cage carries the film; he hasn’t been this good since Adaptation.

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2009 was a good year for Werner Herzog. In addition to completing writing what I picked as the best book of the year, Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From the Making of Fitzcarraldo, (well, publishing it in the U.S. anyway; it was written decades ago), he premiered two feature films; the David Lynch production My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. My Son, My Son feels very much like a film that is half Herzog and half Lynch, but sadly very little of it works. Much more successful is Bad Lieutenant, which has very tenuous ties to the 1992 Abel Ferrara film of the same name, and instead plays basically like what would happen if a major Hollywood studio hired Herzog to direct a stupid, generic cop movie script, but allowed Herzog to have final cut.

This suits me nicely, as I like both highbrow and lowbrow; Bad Lieutenant is a nice mixture of both, but far from middlebrow. Nicolas Cage stars as Terence McDonagh, a cop of dubious morality and ethics but who is always trying to actually do his job, for better or worse. His practices, which include bullying old ladies (in a scene that can rightfully be described as delightful), hanging out with his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), taking sexual advantage of perpetrators of minor crimes as an alternative to taking them to jail, and doing any kind of drugs he can get, be they prescription or hard street drugs (there’s more than one extended crack-smoking sequence in this film), eventually get him into trouble, and he spends the bulk of the movie either trying to redeem himself or to use his position to get away with being a criminal himself; this distinction is left up to the viewer.

Herzog’s trademarks are unmistakably clear in the film; the big one is Cage’s broad performance; pretty much any other director would have reeled him in. Good thing Herzog didn’t, because Cage carries the film; he hasn’t been this good since Adaptation. Funny no one ever thought to have Herzog direct Cage before; now that they have a film behind them, they seem like an obvious match. Also, there are a couple of great sequences involving animals of various kind,; iguanas that are probably just hallucinations, and a really great crocodile-cam shot of an automobile accident. It’s sort of amazing that whoever thought it was a good idea to finance the production of this script let these little flourishes stay in the finished film.

But that’s the thing; throughout this review I’ve been talking about the script as if it’s awful, and it’s not; it’s just generic. Had a regular director directed the same script, I probably would have still liked the film, because I like these films where we see cops go outside the law in the service of the law (don’t we all?). It’s just that Herzog, as he nearly always does, manages to elevate the material, and bring some meat along with it. In other words, I would have enjoyed the film made from this script almost no matter what, but it’s Herzog’s choices that have kept me thinking about it for months after having seen it. | Pete Timmermann

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