Werner Herzog is so unique as a director of films that he is as close to being uncategorizable as any filmmaker in the medium’s history. His 2009 film, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call: New Orleans, is no exception. The film is a sort of satiric riff on the 1992 B film, Bad Lieutenant, made by schlockmeister Abel Ferrara, and starring Harvey Keitel. That film got wildly divergent criticism, but was a pretty bad film, and not nearly as campily fun as Ferrara’s best known film, King Of New York. And when I say this film is a satire, I mean it, even starting from its tripartite naming, which is rumored to have come about because the film’s producer had produced Ferrara’s film, and wanted to restart it as a sort of film franchise, in the mold of the television series CSI. Ferrara reputedly wished death upon the producer, Herzog, and all involved because he was so protective of his original piece of garbage. Herzog counterclaimed that his film is neither a sequel nor remake, and this is basically true. Other than the fact that the two lead characters in the films are corrupt police lieutenants, nothing else is the same.
The screenwriter for the film is William Finkelstein, but clearly Herzog “Wernerized” the script, adding in his own indelible touches, and making the film almost a pure satire of police procedural films, rather than the straight cop buddy film it could have been, since the two biggest male stars are Nicolas Cage, as Terrence McDonagh, and Val Kilmer, as Stevie Pruit, his partner. Kilmer’s role is so generic that one wonders why he did the part, save for a paycheck. Then, again, maybe it’s part of the satire of Hollywood buddy films, because Stevie starts and ends the film, but disappears for 80% of it, in the middle. Similarly off the rack is Eva Mendes, as Franky, the prostitute with a heart of gold, who is an addict and shares drugs with Terry. He got hooked when he saved a prisoner stuck in his cell in a New Orleans jail, after it flooded because of Hurricane Katrina, hurt his back, and was prescribed Vicodin. The bulk of the film ostensibly is about the murder of an African immigrant family by the local drug lord, and Terry’s investigations. But, in reality, this is just an excuse to allow Cage to scenery chew: He loses a star witness, he argues with his drunken dad (Tom Bower) and drunken second wife (Jennifer Coolidge), he steps on the toes of a Mobster, he threatens two old ladies in a Senior Citizen’s Center, he stops a minor drug deal so he can get drugs and ends up having sex with the guy’s gorgeous girlfriend (Katie Chonacas) in the parking lot, forcing the beau to watch at gunpoint, he gets in debt to a local bookie (Brad Dourif), tries to fix a college football game, steals drugs from evidence rooms, tries to fix his bookie’s niece’s traffic ticket, which leads to a near-sexual encounter with a former co-worker (Fairuza Balk).
Despite all this, Franky ends up going to AA meetings with Terry’s dad, and Terry ends up snorting cocaine alone, as his stepmother boozes, and they watch cable TV together. Then comes the much discussed ending, which works as a dream sequence or satire, but not reality. A year passes, and all the loose ends of Terry’s life are tied up in a scene that is too unreal to be true. The football game he tried to fix is won, despite the player he blackmails not playing, so his bookie pays off; the thug he earlier harassed for beating up Franky, which got the Mobster down on his ass, ends up kissing his ass after he learns the Mobster was killed by Terry’s drug lord pal, who ends up arrested and convicted, getting him promoted to Captain. Franky and he seem to marry, buy a perfect home, and she ends up pregnant, and getting along with his father and wife. It’s all too neat and perfect, yet a delicious ‘Fuck You!’ to Hollywood action films’ ends. To top it off we also see an almost exact repetition of the scene where Terry stops a guy and his girlfriend in a parking lot, but the scene ends before another sex act, and the film ends with him meeting up with the druggy con (now a year clean) he saved from the jail, to start the film. He asks if fish dream, and the two end up at an aquarium watching fish swim by. It’s so odd and bizarre, yet so perfectly Herzogian, that the movie really defies description.
Is Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call: New Orleans a great film? No. Is it a fun film? Yes. Is it worth seeing? Yes. Is Cage good in it? Maybe, because little acting chops are needed. Then, again, that’s the point of satire, to show that little effort is needed in mimicking the crap that passes for quality, in most instances. The DVD, put out by First Look Studios, shows the film in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and there are only a few DVD features. An audio commentary is not among them. This is a shame, for with a good prompter, Herzog is amongst the best film commentarians going. What we do get are two trailers for the film, photos from the shoot, by Herzog’s wife, and a slapped together ‘Making Of’ documentary that is not really a documentary, just captured footage. Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography is as good as it’s always been, in such films as these. The musical scoring, by Herzog and Mark Isham, is also good, and quite feral and raw. The focus on odd bits, such as breakdancing ghosts of dead mobsters, invisible iguanas on coffee tables, snakes that slither through flooded prisons, and an alligator that eyes its run over and dying mate from its own eye level, are just some of the odd views the film gives. Even the actors, in minor roles, don’t really act, they just are, and become as iconographically symbolic as the animals.
Yet, the film has power, because, as Serpico showed, there are few things more ‘real’ in film than cops who abuse their power. Yes, Cage’s Terry becomes almost clown-like, but the things he does are done every day, in every major police force, all around the world. The Blue Wall Of Silence protects the scumbags. Terry’s is the Type 1 corrupt cop. They are up to 5% of all cops. Type 2 is the cop who does not commit brazenly illegal acts, but writes false tickets to meet quotas, harasses drivers, and takes bribes (in the form of money or female’s phone numbers) to drop charges against them. They are up to 80 % of the police force. Type 3 is the most prevalent corruption, and they are the 99+% of cops who look the other way at Types 1 and 2 (obviously there’s overlap between the three types). So, claims that the film is not realistic are wrong; it’s merely stylized realism. And, the film it actually shares the most, thematically, with is Curtis Hanson’s 1997 masterpiece, L.A. Confidential, which also focuses on corrupt cops and an execution in a home. But Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call: New Orleans really has only one kinship, and that’s with the many oddball films in Herzog’s own canon. My guess is that fictive masterpieces like he did in the first two decades of his career, are simply beyond Herzog now, and that the best we can get, not unlike Woody Allen, are flashes of brilliance, and the occasional mesmerizing small documentary. Good enough for most filmmakers, but coming from Herzog, it’s hard to put aside the notion that his career could have been even more, could have transfigured the medium to an even greater degree. Nonetheless, films like this will suffice, just as they will entertain and dog the viewer with a mind demanding more than just the Hollywood formulae of yore. See it, and move somewards from yourself. Watching Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call: New Orleans, is there any reason not to?