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The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is not exactly a remake of the Abel Ferrara original but a surreal comedy-thriller.

Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans

My first reaction in hearing that Werner Herzog was remaking Bad Lieutenant was that it was some internet rumour gone wild.

Why would one of Europe’s greatest auteurs remake such a film and reset it in New Orleans with Nicolas Cage reprising the Harvey Keitel role?

More to the point, what was up with the crazy title? The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (N.B. IMDb and other outlets wrongly leave off the ‘The’, which can be seen in the title sequence)

When a nutty trailer surfaced online a few months back (presumably it was something cut for sales purposes) it looked that the end film could be something rather off the wall.

When I saw the logo of Millennium Films, alarms bells started ringing as this is Avi Lerner’s production company which has burped up such recent schlock as The Wicker Man remake, 88 Minutes and Righteous Kill. Would this be another lazy pay day vehicle for a recognised star? What exactly is going on here?

My guess is that the project came about because: producer Edward R Pressman wanted to revamp the original film (which remember was NC-17 in the US and something of an under-performing cult); Herzog had some mainstream heat after two widely acclaimed documentaries (Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World); name actors like Cage, Eva Mendes and Val Kilmer were keen to work with the great director; and a pulpy script piqued the interest of all concerned.

Plus, I reckon that Herzog may have wanted to flex his creative muscles within the confines of a more generic film on a bigger than usual budget for him.

When it premièred at the Venice film festival word on the festival street was mixed and that is likely to be mirrored when it opens in cinemas.

Having seen it earlier today at an LFF press preview I can only confirm that it is indeed an insane reinterpretation of the Ferrara film. Whereas that was a bold look at a tortured soul hurtling towards his own version of hell, this one is much loopier affair that almost wilfully subverts the Catholic guilt of the original.

The set-up here involves Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), a New Orleans cop who starts out receiving a medal and a promotion to lieutenant for heroism during Hurricane Katrina. But after injuring his back he soon becomes addicted to all kinds of drugs and finds himself involved with drug dealer (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner) who is suspected of murdering a family of African immigrants.

We follow McDonagh as he tries to keep the various parts of his life in check including: his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes); his hot-headed partner (Val Kilmer); a local bookie (Brad Dourif) and all manner of criminals.

This sounds like it could be the premise of a conventional crime movie and there are elements of William Finkelstein’s script that bear the hallmarks of the traditional cop procedural. But filtered through the lens of Herzog, we have something different altogether.

As the story progresses Cage’s character takes gargantuan amounts of drugs (coke, heroin, crack), shakes down clubbers and then screws their girlfriends in front of them, runs up huge debts, threatens old age pensioners and does all this wearing an oversize suit with a funny looking revolver.

But this only scratches the surface, as Herzog adds some wildly surreal touches involving iguanas and alligators shot in extreme hand held close-up, whacky interludes involving dogs, horny traffic cops and hilariously over the top dialogue delivered by Cage in a couple of different accents  (my favourite lines being “‘Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” and “to the break of DAWNNNN!!!!”).

In some ways the relationship between this and the earlier work mirrors that between Harvey Keitel’s deranged cop and the NYPD in the first film. Strange, out of control and defiantly off its head, it seems destined for cult status: appealing to cinephiles and late night stoner audiences.

To makes things even stranger, the war of words that broke out over the idea of remaking was similarly bizarre. Ferrara was less than happy that the project went ahead at all and was quoted as saying:

“As far as remakes go, … I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.”

When asked for his response, Herzog said:

“I’ve never seen a film by him. I have no idea who he is.”

I can only assume the Bavarian maestro was having a laugh when he said this. At a press conference at Venice after the film’s première, he also said of Ferrara:

“I would like to meet the man,” and “I have a feeling that if we met and talked, over a bottle of whisky, I should add, I think we could straighten everything out.”

Although on the basis of this film it makes you wonder if the makers have been taking something altogether stronger than whiskey.

As I was watching it unfold on screen I found myself frequently laughing and then questioning if I was laughing with or at the film. In a strange way I think it was both, although it should be noted that the festival audience I saw it with gave a spontaneous burst of applause at the end.

How it does at the box office is a trickier question. It is playing at the London Film Festival on Friday 23rd October, but it doesn’t have a UK release date fixed yet, although I definitely think it deserves one.

The US opening is on November 20th and although it won’t make a ton of money, it should be profitable and find its natural home on DVD and late night TV where I’m sure it will be savoured under the influence of certain substances.

By Ambrose Heron

Editor of FILMdetail

1 reply on “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”

I found it very entertaining and even uplifting. I actually watched the video twice, because it goes pretty fast. I saw the 1992 Bad Lieutenant and enjoyed the 2009 version a lot more. It probably should not have called itself Bad Lieutenant. I recommend it if you like something a little different. In some ways it is a black comedy, i.e., film noir.

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