Bad Bad, Not Good Bad
2009 // USA // Werner Herzog // February 7, 2010 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema)
C - Full disclosure: I have never seen Abel Ferrara's pitch-black 1992 character study, Bad Lieutenant. Neither has German film-maker and madman Werner Herzog. Unlike me, however, Herzog has directed a film titled The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, so he perhaps needs a better excuse than my all-purpose cover for any patch of cinematic illiteracy, "It's in my Netflix queue." If the reports are to be believed, Herzog does not regard his new feature as a remake, reboot, re-imagining, or anything of the sort. He claims that he doesn't even know who Ferrara is, and that the film's producers dictated its title. All this makes me much more comfortable approaching tBL:PoC - NO (yeesh, it hurts to type that) as a standalone work, rather than a tribute to or riff on Ferrara's film. Unfortunately, even if one regards Herzog's film as a wholly original work, there's no way around the fact that it is his sloppiest film in years, especially when compared to his last narrative feature, the lean, propulsive Rescue Dawn. Did I mention that the corrupt, degenerate, possibly psychotic police lieutenant of the title is played by American actor and madman Nicholas Cage? Letting Cage run loose in such a role might have been a nutty stroke of genius, but alas, Bad Lieutenant proves to be just another Bad Nick Cage performance, surrounded by a tonal and thematic muddle.
In a prologue set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans detective Terence McDonagh (Cage) reluctantly saves a man from drowning in a flooded police station holding cell. He is promoted to lieutenant as a result, but he also severely injures his back, setting him up for a lifelong addiction to painkillers. Six months later, McDonagh is the lead officer on the murder of a Senegalese drug dealer and his family. Despite the police procedural window dressing, Bad Lieutenant is not, in any conventional sense, a crime drama. McDonagh deduces fairly quickly that the murderers are a local drug kingpin and his goons, and there are no unexpected twists in this murder mystery thread. Bad Lieutenant is truly about McDonagh himself, and about his downward spiral into an abyss of drugs, sex, gambling, corruption, violence, and madness. The murder case is but one aspect of his festering life that the viewer has the privilege of touring. McDonagh is addicted to prescription drugs and also to cocaine, but he isn't averse to partaking in a little weed, heroin, or crack, as the situation warrants. He has a prostitute girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), who is also addicted to drugs and occasionally lets him shake down her customers. McDonagh has rung up a sizeable debt with his bookie (Brad Douriff) by betting (badly) on college football. He steals from the property room, and extorts drugs and sex from young club-goers by threatening them with arrest. His widower father (Tom Bower) is a drunk who has married another drunk (Jennifer Coolidge).
Herzog gives all of these elements more-or-less equal weight, signaling that the character of McDonagh is his focus, rather than the story per se. This isn't to say that the narrative isn't compelling in its way; it's just that the film-makers are less concerned with what happens than how McDonagh reacts to those events, and we're bound to follow their gaze. The film presents the lieutenant's existence as an undifferentiated tangle of rotten situations, all of which are colliding. As with many addicts, there are no banal moments in McDonagh's life: everything is always teetering on the edge of giddy victory or utter disaster. There is a kind of mesmerizing, frantic quality to the script, as one calamity leads to another and then another, and then the whole situation reverses with an unexpected stroke of luck, and then reverses again. At times, the story leans a bit too heavily on coincidence, but this arguably meshes with the film's surrealist touches (more on those in a bit).
Herzog's only clear objective seems to be to present a slice of this repulsive man's life in sickening detail. There's nothing intrinsically objectionable about this sort of character-based voyeurism, especially when the character in question is a compelling antihero (e.g., Taxi Driver, There Will Be Blood, or even...I don't know... Aguirre: The Wrath of God). However, a film-maker working within this mode should at least take a stab at articulating the antihero's understanding of themselves. Neither Herzog nor screenwriter William M. Finkelstein permit us to glance into McDonagh's inner life. There are whispers of Catholic guilt, childhood nostalgia, unresolved racism and class envy, and other tidbits sprinkled here and there, but these elements have no functional relationship to the events we are watching. The lieutenant's behavior is erratic, which is unrealistic--addicts don't behave erratically, as their whole lives are tightly organized around getting high--and also prevents us from getting a handhold on what's going on behind the sweaty, coke-addled histrionics. This being Herzog, there are some suggestions, in the dialog and through a recurring reptile motif, that McDonagh sees himself as an cold-blooded survivor, as single-minded as a predator on the prowl for its next meal. However, this cynical, amoral take on the character is not developed, and it frequently collides with other anemic themes. Elsewhere, Bad Lieutenant seems to be striving for a kind of ironic redemptive message, complete with a romantic embrace of the American Dream. Still elsewhere it is suggested that a prankster God is playing a direct role in manipulating events for His own sadistic amusement. Contradiction isn't always a flaw, but here it just feels like the result of slipshod storytelling that possesses neither a clear conception of its protagonist nor a coherent thematic thrust.
If Herzog deserves much of the blame for this confusion, Cage's distinctive brand of distracting silliness surely doesn't help. To their credit, both actor and director don't pull any punches; McDonagh is the center of the film, and boy do they want you to know it. Dressed in wrinkled, cream-colored suits a size too large, Cage slouches through the film with his chin slung low, looking like a cross between a sweaty southern lawyer and Frankenstein's monster. He glowers, sneers, screeches, bellows, and laughs maniacally, delivering the sort of So-Bad-It's-Good performances that is delicious fun to watch, but can't really be called "acting" in the sense one normally would mean. I haven't seen Cage in a film since he decided to dedicate himself to obvious rubbish like National Treasure and Ghost Rider, but the right feature can, on occasion, channel his broad, heedless style to great effect (e.g., Wild at Heart). Here the actor's presence just serves to segregate his character from the rest of film, as though someone had spliced Cage's cartoonish thrashings over a modulated, revealing performance by another actor. It's entertaining as hell, sure, but it also torpedoes any chance that Bad Lieutenant might discover its thematic or emotional foundation within its central performance.
I am willing to entertain the notion that Bad Lieutenant is a farce, but if this is the case, then the film is an even more conspicuous failure than I am willing to believe. There are too many overtly grim moments, too many scenes suffused with vividly expressed grief and rage, for the film to read as a work of black humor. Granted, what humor the film possesses is decisively black in character, and Herzog is adept at both alleviating and amplifying the threat of violence with absurdity. However, the laughs that the film elicits are most frequently of the unintentional sort, usually courtesy of an outlandish line or gesture from Cage.
Herzog drizzles the film with surrealistic flourishes that provide a welcome jolt from McDonagh's often suffocating descent into depravity, even if those flourishes often seem digressive. When McDonagh hallucinates that iguanas are crawling around a stakeout location, Herzog lingers indulgently on a lizard's-eye view of the detectives. In what proves to be the film's most inspired moment, McDonagh envisions the spirit of a slain gangster as a breakdancer spinning to zydeco music. "Shoot him again," the lieutenant murmurs, "His soul is still dancing." It's exactly the sort of weirdness that the film needs. Unfortunately such moments are too far and few between for them to provide a convincing fabric of magical realism, and they just end up resembling isolated whimsical gestures.
Longtime Herzog cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger does a marvelous job of capturing a distinctive look for New Orleans and its environs, one that relies on neither a tourist's rosy conception of the city nor a clichéd noir atmosphere. Zeitlinger's approach seizes upon the city's decay, but disregards the colonial or antebellum grandeur. Bad Lieutenant's New Orleans is gray, wet, and rust-flecked. You can practically smell the mildew, the rotting fish, and the ripe body odor of relentless, humid summers. In one of the film's finest shots, the camera crawls low over an asphalt highway, passes sputtering magnesium flares and skid marks, discovers a dead alligator with its entrails smeared, and then pans up to reveal a terrible multi-car auto accident. It's a superb visual that just screams Louisiana, but Herzog and Zeitlinger manage to make it feel anything but gimmicky.
That sort of visual artistry makes it difficult to accept what seems obvious under an honest assessment: Bad Lieutenant is a Bad Movie. It's never dull, and it's often downright thrilling, but there's just no getting around that it's a complete mess in all the ways that matter, and right at the center is a slab of thespian excess that simply cannot be taken seriously. In the past few years, Herzog has made some of the best documentaries in the world, which is why it's tempting to give a pass for something like Bad Lieutenant. However, the director proved just two years ago with Rescue Dawn that he can still create effective narrative features. Bad Lieutenant, by comparison, just feels careless and slightly embarrassing.