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Take Two #6: Bad Lieutenant (1992) & Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

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Take Two #6: <em>Bad Lieutenant</em> (1992) & <em>Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans</em> (2009)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

On the one hand: social tragedy, religious despair, wasted humanity, a primal wail, seediness and grime. On the other: pitch-black comedy, atheistic bafflement, an unflattering comparison of mankind to reptiles, a self-righteous cackle, camp and sleaze. And an excuse to work with Nicolas Cage.

I respect the hell out of the original Bad Lieutenant, and would point to it as definitive evidence of Harvey Keitel’s underappreciated greatness. I would also never watch it again. As a portrait of relentless misery and depravity, it has few equals in cinema, but depravity alone doesn’t do it for me anymore. Not that I can’t enjoy a stroll through the lower depths, but I now require that my guides (a) keep me entertained, in the classic sense, and (b) don’t get all religious in the end. Keitel’s a genius, and director Abel Ferrara is the kind of no-bull independent filmmaker that our culture could always use more of. But they don’t meet my criteria.

Enter Werner Herzog. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is such an insane affront to the original film’s dour, earnest tone that I’m amazed the title was allowed to stand. As one might expect of Herzog, the view of humanity on display is less tragic than cynically dismissive, but as one might not expect: This film is tremendously fun. The protagonist is still repellant, and a couple of individual scenes test the audience’s capacity for sympathy beyond all reason, but Bad Lieutenant: POCNO delivers as a crackling bit of pulp. The script, by occasional L.A. Law and Law & Order writer William M. Finkelstein, is so impeccably constructed that even Herzog’s characteristic flights of nonlinear fancy—most effectively (and glaringly) in an unforgettable sequence involving iguanas—can’t undermine it. This is a movie that, like its antihero, does whatever the fuck it wants; sometimes that means tense, violent standoffs, and sometimes that means letting Nicolas Cage riff his heart out with Xzibit and a kilo of cocaine. On one occasion, it means letting both happen in the same scene.

Granted, Herzog’s reflexive chaos obsession is at least as affected as Ferrara’s gutter Catholicism, but objectively, I find the former a better match for this material. Keitel’s lieutenant is left unnamed. He’s a terrible father, and he eventually begs for heavenly forgiveness and redemption that never come. Cage’s lieutenant is named Terrence McDonagh, he’s actually a devoted son, and he never even admits any wrongdoing to himself, let alone a supreme being. Naturally, he ends his film with a promotion and a beautiful new family. The tragedy of Bad Lieutenant is the idea that certain people are truly undeserving of God’s love. But if you’re an atheist like Herzog, that whole setup feels like make-believe; you might as well watch a drama about a man begging his vacuum cleaner to love him. Better to reassert the law of the jungle. And so corruption is depicted as both inevitable and inconsequential.

Certainly, Herzog’s unwavering, ferocious rationalism begs for parody. But Bad Lieutenant: POCNO proves just how unexpectedly flexible this worldview can be in the hands of a gifted artist. Like a living embodiment of auteur theory, Herzog’s grim fatalism is equally evident in Bad Lieutenant: POCNO as it is in Stroszek, Grizzly Man, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, and Little Dieter Needs to Fly. More impressively, this relatively light film is just as well made and performed as those masterpieces. It’s a little tiresome to hear a man with this much talent, curiosity, and obvious love for film to keep berating us about the universe’s essential harshness, but as this short sample shows, he can insert that philosophy into a staggering number of styles and modes. It’s particularly useful in this film since, as I’ve noticed elsewhere, film noir thrives on exactly this kind hardened cynicism.

The only thing that might improve Bad Lieutenant: POCNO (besides more Val Kilmer, who appears so sparingly that his role is nearly a cameo) would be a greater acknowledgement of the original film’s themes and imagery. At this point, Herzog can do his scorched-earth-madman routine with his eyes closed; it might be interesting to actually see him in dialogue with a fundamentally religious film like Ferrara’s. But then again, Bad Lieutenant: POCNO isn’t exactly a remake, or a sequel, or even related to the original film beyond their shared title. Instead, it seems Herzog took on this project as an excuse to work with Cage, and to work in post-Katrina New Orleans. He’s spent the last decade making ambitious nature documentaries and taking whatever opportunities he must (remaking Little Dieter Needs to Fly as a narrative film, working with David Lynch, “remaking” a film that bears no relation whatsoever to his own previous work) in order to work with the few actors who match his batshit intensity: Tim Roth, Christian Bale, Michael Shannon, and Cage.

These are fundamentally directors’ films, but any discussion of them has to come back to the lead performances. Both Cage and Keitel are often derided for playing themselves in every role, but Bad Lieutenant offers them an opportunity to expand their respective personas past any considerations of good taste, humility, or self-consciousness. For Keitel, this means self-immolation; for Cage, bug-eyed lunacy masquerading as obnoxious confidence. If the two actors switched films, Keitel’s character would likely die amid the New Orleans squalor, a needle in his arm as Herzog lingered on a snake in nearby floodwater. But one senses that Cage, if suddenly transplanted to the hellscape of early-’90s Times Square, would devour everything around him, belching blood as Ferrara’s reverent nuns looked on in calm forgiveness. What would you rather watch?

John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.