Happy Birthday Mr Herzog! – Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans

One of my favourite film-makers is 74 today, so here’s a review of one of his most enjoyable films (and that’s saying something) from 2010.

A curious and long-winded title, and though this takes the bare bones of Abel Ferrara’ s 1992 cult film Bad Lieutenant, it’s in no way a remake (in fact Herzog claims not to have seen it). In the earlier film Harvey Keitel’s coke-snorting, gambling, raping and cheating cop inhabits an almost Graham-Greeneian universe of morality, a diseased world where redemption is a serious notion. Our bad cop here, punished apparently by fate or whatever for a (probably uncharacteristic) good act, that sets him on the road to addiction, skitters crazily through a world of misrule where nothing makes any sense morally and the keen unblinking eyes of cold-blooded creatures – from the snake that slithers through the dark water of New Orleans’ dereliction at the beginning to fish prettily swimming in the aquarium behind two hapless humans in the closing shot – keep watch over the warm blooded follies of the human protagonists – lord what fools these mortals be.

New Orleans cop Terence McDonagh’s act of bravery in saving a prisoner from a flooded jail in the hurricane’s aftermath chronically damages his back and he soon (or was he already?)is addicted to anything he can gets his hands on and his nose into for the pain. He’s got every trick in the book to get his gear, from misappropriating confiscated stuff from police stores to jumping on hapless couples leaving clubs with a bit of ‘personal use’ on them. He’s got huge gambling debts too (nice laid back performance by Brad Dourif as the increasingly alienated buddy who takes on his bets) which he once more tries to sort by misusing his police position. His dad is in rehab and his stepmother drinks beer all day in their tumbledown Louisiana house. Then there’s a dog to look after… Lucky he’s got a compliant girlfriend (Eva Mendes). Meanwhile he’s in charge of a nasty murder case where a family of five, small players in the drug world, have been killed. All these factors, grim as you like or highly comic, whirl around a tortuous, mazey narrative as Nicolas Cage stumbles lop-sided (with his bad back), menacing and mischievous like a modern day Richard the Third, manically laughing at his own jokes, threatening old ladies, and increasingly resembling a hero of the silent film with his wild hollow eyes, flaring nostrils and exaggerated demeanour. (Think Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger.) It’s as bravura a performance as he’s ever done, and a great addition to Herzog’s gallery of crazed heroes, from Aguirre to Grizzly Man. You almost feel that actor and director are seamlessly going mad together. And maybe they’ve taken you along with them, as what at first seems a normal police film becomes a deconstruction of one. Are we all participating in the bad lieutenant’s dream? Those iguanas…

When it comes the fauxest of faux happy endings, you just want to laugh at the deliriousness of it all, and especially when there’s a reprise of the delightfully zany Shea Whigham’s trippy bad ass -it’s all a bit like the end of a panto when your favourite acts come back on stage. Herzog’s world is ultimately an amoral, tragic free for all, of monsters and obsessions, where nothing has any meaning and evil is rewarded as often as good, but we can take delight in the oddness of it all, and rarely more than in this latest film.

Seen London, 2010


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