Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, dir. Werner Herzog, now playing at Angelika Film Center
In the press notes for his new film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, director Werner Herzog dismisses comparisons to Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant. He writes: “The pedantic branch of academia, the so called ‘film studies,’ in its attempt to do damage to cinema, will be ecstatic to find a small reference to that earlier film here and there, though it will fail to do the same damage—in the name of literary theory—it has done to poetry, which it has pushed to the brink of extinction. Cinema, so far, is more robust. I call upon the theoreticians of cinema to go after this one. Go for it, losers!”
In addition to portraying eccentric film protagonists, Herzog successfully characterizes himself—both onscreen and off—as a romantic and hysterical filmmaking purist. And like Hitchcock before him, Herzog offers this well-crafted persona to enhance the viewing experience for his audience. Herzog has developed this character in his own work; his documentary My Best Fiend (1999) revisits his violent relationship to actor Klaus Kinski. Performing cameos in films by Harmony Korine, Herzog has lent this character to others’ work. Herzog’s legendary behind-the-scenes adventures in making Fitzcarraldo (1982) is chronicled both in Les Blank’s famous documentary Burden of Dreams (1982) as well as in Herzog’s recently published production journals. The 67-year-old German has written and directed around 40 feature and documentary films, and while they vary in structure and story, certain themes bind them to a greater Herzogian universe: his fascination with the failure of those with bold dreams, his exploration of man’s struggle against untamed wilderness, and his interest in exploring his role as director, earnestly making sense of it all.
Herzog’s latest effort, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, stands out as a rare instance of Herzog performing the role of director for hire. The job offer came from first-time producer Gabe Polsky, who referred to Herzog as “the bad lieutenant of directors.” Together with brother, producing partner Alan, the Polskys initially hoped to reunite director Abel Ferrara and actor Harvey Keitel in a straight-up sequel to the unforgettably raw 1992 film of the same title. But after script disagreements, Ferrara walked and the Polskys turned to Herzog, pairing him with sweaty and hyperactive Nicholas Cage.
Herzog insists that he has not seen the original film, and that aside from the title and its suggestion of a misbehaving police lieutenant, he maintains that Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is no remake. In fact, the film offers almost nothing for fans looking for either the grit of the original film or the poetry of a Herzog meditation. Instead, the film performs as B-level kitsch, delivering comedic one-liners atop gratuitous depravity and “lewdness,” as Herzog would say. Appearing to aspire for the jubilance of, say, a Tarantino bludgeoning, Herzog’s effort to redeem violence with comedy lacks commitment and confidence. In scene after scene, neither the moments of dramatic despair nor celebratory, crack-head absurdity leave the viewer convinced that even Herzog himself knew what he wanted out of the scene. Perhaps he didn’t care. Perhaps the unfocused tone is of his careful design. Either way, the film does little more than inspire a shallow-throated laughter, and the unfolding plot is on par with watching a video game character butcher his indistinguishable enemies.
The film’s most memorable moments come when Cage’s mania moves to the background and Herzog’s camera takes center stage. In one scene the drugged-out, hallucinating bad lieutenant (Mr. Cage) observes two iguanas on a coffee table, and for literally minutes of screen time, a country music ditty accompanies Herzog’s handheld panning shot of the reptiles. In another scene, the bad lieutenant orders a dead man to be shot again because his “soul is still dancing;” the dead man rises and break-dances until the bad lieutenant guns him down once more. But such moments of all-encompassing absurdity are few and far between. Most scenes exist in a barren no-man’s-land, distant from both convincing drama and pointed comedy.
Cage’s performance befits this grey area. His acting, aggressive and over-the-top, darts around from one pace and tone to another. The procedural police drama of a screenplay by William Finkelstein—much unlike Ferrara’s film—ends with a nearly sarcastic happy ending. It all feels like a bad joke. And by this measure, Herzog’s slapdash approach to the storytelling and mediocre production value satisfy exactly what his employers required, deserved, and perhaps wanted. Still, even fans of B-movie schlock, who might find a cinema event in snorting and jeering along with an all-male audience, will have little to take home with them at the end of night.
The producer brothers Polsky speak of wanting to showcase a type of iconoclastic, over-the-top movie character that could reach cult status. The producers reference Scarface, American Psycho, and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas as models of inspiration. “It’s about having the poster on your dorm room wall,” says brother Alan. Indeed, their ambition was to establish a franchise, extending to future Bad Lieutenant pictures set in other cities and to further director/actor combinations, citing Darren Aronofsky/Brad Pitt and Michel Gondry/Bill Murray. (Hmmm.) It may be rare and admirable to devise a strategy for art-filmmaking that intersects with franchised, bankable psychosis, but here the concept never flies. And since producer and Bad Lieutenant-rights-owner Edward R. Pressman dislikes the idea of future sequels, it looks like the dealer will cut off the bad lieutenant cold turkey.
As for Herzog, this film will quickly wither from his canon. But his attachment to the project (and the opportunities for public comment that it afforded) earned the celebrity filmmaker significant bad-ass credibility. So as the bad lieutenant of directors secures his unique legacy, perhaps the most poetic and compelling character he explores will be Werner Herzog.
Malcolm Wyer--in the name of literary theory--aims to push poetry to the brink of extinction.