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REVIEW | Oddly Coarse and Compellingly Offbeat: Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant”

REVIEW | Oddly Coarse and Compellingly Offbeat: Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant"

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” opens this Friday in theaters.

Guided by a hilariously over-the-top Nicolas Cage performance and Werner Herzog’s slapdash direction, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” delivers an oddly coarse and compellingly offbeat take on the troubled police drama. Setting aside producer Edward Pressman’s bizarre decision to remake Abel Ferrara’s gritty 1992 noir (the two movies have virtually nothing in common), the appeal of Herzog’s feature comes from an ever-present weirdness. Cage plays a twisted cop riddled with addictions and corrupt idiosyncrasies. His cocaine problem continually impacts his professional life, and he often uses the power of the badge as a means of getting the drugs he wants. His main muse (Eva Mendes) is a prostitute. His strategy for interrogating a gangster involves sharing a crack pipe. In short, he’s a train wreck from start to finish, but relentlessly driven to keep barreling forward — much like the movie as a whole.

Go for the wacky Cage routine, stay for the Herzogian idiosyncrasies. While I’m not sure if this “Bad Lieutenant” actually works on the level of psychological realism that it constantly aims to achieve, it certainly delivers as a black comedy. Cage’s character hurtles from one ridiculous situation to another, bubbling with histrionic rage: He busts a young man for carrying drugs and then has sex with his partner (“Watch me fuck your girlfriend!”), steals Vicotin from the behind the counter of a drug store, and pulls an oxygen mask off an ailing woman to get her caretaker to reveal information for his investigation. He also blackmails a football player for gambling purposes and shows up to work on heroin. Can any member of society, particularly one representing the law, possibly get away with this behavior? To combat this difficult question, Herzog plays each of these situations as outlandishly comedic. Cage might not seem credible, but he’s so much fun to watch that the lack of credibility actually liberates him.

Herzog’s direction mimics the cop’s subjectivity. (The iguana hallucination, which goes for minutes to the beat of somber country music, takes this approach to its extreme.) But the German New Wave legend appears to restrain himself to the point where “Bad Lieutenant” teeters on the edge of a wild ride and never quite makes the drop. Yet, despite the questionable origins of the project, nobody can call “Bad Lieutenant” derivative. This genius filmmaker, whose career has taken him around the world to savage and often life-threatening situations, certainly doesn’t take the usual route with the genre. It’s a maniacal character piece before anything else, but the script falters often enough to highlight a disconnect between Herzog’s vision and the messy trajectory of the story. Set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it deals in chaos as a cycle, but the plot details feel sloppy. Still, while Herzog can do better, it goes without saying that Cage could do a lot worse.

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