Review: The Bad Lieutenant
by Binoy Kampmark
The Very Bad Lieutenant
When asked at a press conference in Rome in June last year on what he thought about Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Abel Ferrara could barely contain himself. ‘I think that if they don’t have any original ideas about what movies to make, they should leave mine alone.’ This, regarding his own film from 1992 featuring Harvey Keitel as the drug addled, corrupt member of the New York Police force with an onerous sense of Catholic guilt.
What was Herzog thinking when dealing with this foray into the underworld of the Big Easy? He denies that this was a remake of Ferrara’s cult effort, but the resemblances are there. We have the character of Terrence McDonagh, a New Orleans policeman who irreparably injures his back while rescuing a convict during the rising waters of Hurricane Katrina. The injury induces a sliding drug addiction. As he succumbs, he trawls the city for drugs, sadistic pleasures and bets. His fixation with hunting down the murderers of five Senegalese residents takes him into an unholy alliance with Big Fate (Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner).
Cage struggles to patch together a consistent performance. According to Manohla Dargis in the New York Times (Nov 15, 2009), ‘Mr. Cage is reliably unreliable.’ He falls quite someway short of generating an impression of drug-driven angst, instead hamming a performance that grates more than inspires. Indeed, Herzog’s entire effort here is problematic. There is no deep engagement with the subject matter. If anything, one is utterly disengaged. The relationship between McDonagh and Eva Mendes’ character, the prostitute Frankie Donnenfeld, is a triumph of shallowness. Val Kilmer seems to be a mere prop as Stevie Pruit, McDonagh’s partner.
Other performances demonstrating the interiorized world of drug-induced hazes have been made before, some better than others. Johnny Depp is particularly good, even entertaining as the intoxicated journalist in the adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Smooth, irreverent dialogue, combined with Terry Gilliam’s fantastic realizations, provide a racy, improbable product. But the fact remains that, in terms of sheer weight, Ferrara’s effort remains unchallenged.
Herzog has made a habit of tackling characters teetering on madness. One wonders at times whether he might not, himself, have gone there on more than the odd occasion, inspiring fear amongst actors he has issued death threats to and the odd physical attack. His weapon in this regard has always been the terrifying Klaus Kinski, his ironclad, dark knight guarantee and winning subject. Whatever critics might have said, Cage is no Kinski, not even a third carbon of him. Ferrara can rest easy that this attempt will have done little to eclipse his work.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark at gmail.com