DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Tuesday 15 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) dir, Werner Herzog
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Vondie Curtis-Hall


The new 'Bad Lieutenant' feels like one big cinematic joke leaving those who don’t get it alienated and dumbfounded and those who do laughing in hysterics. When this movie was first announced - idiosyncratic director Werner Herzog remaking or refashioning Abel Ferrara’s great character study of hedonism, depravity and redemption - none of us knew what to expect, but if anyone could possibly rework this material for the best it would Werner Herzog. The result indeed its an oddball film of monumental proportions, the work of a complete madman with total freedom with his cinematic canvas.

Nicolas Cage is Terence McDonough, the film’s title character. Like Harvey Keitel he’s addicted to drugs - explained to us this time in a flashback - and has the confidence that he can get away with anything. He and his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) get assigned to a case of a family murdered as part of a Senegalese drug vendetta. As the investigation progress the events of his personal life interweave and interfere with the work.

Along the way Terry crosses paths with a number of oddballs. There’s Frankie (Eva Mendes) a prostitute who’s also his girlfriend and #1 drug partner who will develop the urge to kick the habit. Terry's also a gambler taking bets on college football with his weirdo bookie played by Brad Dourif. There’s his father and alcoholic stepmother who, and there’s his father’s dog which he has to take care of. There’s the child of the murdered family whom he brings along with him to his many sordid escapades, there’s the drug kingpin, ‘Big Fate’ (Xzibit) who proposes to Terry a partnership in organized crime, and there’s his police chief (Vondie Curtis-Hall) who tells him he’s close to having his badge revoked.

I can honestly say this is the only film to ever pull me back from ‘one of the worst pictures I’ve ever seen’ to become a headshaking instant cult classic in the same sitting.

It takes over half way through to figure this picture out. On one hand some scenes serve to recreate the hedoism and train wreck journey of Harvey Keitel’s character, others serve the tone of an investigative noir and other times we're watching Lynchian black comedy.

The opening scenes which appear to be played straight are executed with strange amateurish and uneven quality. Val Kilmer is unintentionally hilarious as Terry’s loose cannon partner, and the scenes meant to rival Keitel’s more audacious notorious scenes end up painfully overplayed and rotten.

Slowly we get accustomed to the general theme of wackiness, anchored by Nicolas Cage's wonderful performance. His acting style is perfectly suited to this material. Herzog appears to allow Cage to let loose like never before resulting in a number instant classic set pieces. Terry’s visit to the pharmacy to refill his vicodin prescription is priceless, and arguably the film's eye popping climax is the surreal drug deal shoot out - a scene which will likely be talked about for some time to come.

At some point it all clicked. Like I was out of sync throughout the picture. Once I got engaged the film dissolves away all its chaff revealing an utterly fascinating and entertaining surreal fantasy worthy of David Lynch.

The presence of Herzog’s other film, 'My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done' is important to understanding this picture. Though I haven't seen that film yet I defer by colleague Reece Crothers' assessment of Lynch's collaboration in that picture and assume a similar influence creeped into this one. So audience must come in with an awareness of both filmmakers’ previous films, as well as the original 'Bad Lieutenant' in order to fully appreciate the mad genius of this picture.

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