The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans
d. Werner Herzog / 2009 / USA / 122 min
Viewed at: Screen 1 @ Empire Leicester Square (London, UK)
and Screen 3 @ Odeon (Norwich, UK)
No one mixes the sublime and the ridiculous quite like Werner Herzog. And if nothing else, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans is an achievement simply because it is Herzog at possibly his most Gonzo-absurd. Ludicrous, yet strangely compelling. Avowedly B-grade, yet entirely genius.
The tale of a typically Herzogian madman, singular in his surrounds and unwavering in his willful abandon, the lieutenant in question is, of course, a certain Nicolas Cage playing – as only he can – someone who manages to be an unhinged control freak, whilst also being completely off the deep end. And let’s face it, love him or loathe him, Nicolas Cage is fucking awesome in this role – finding a perfect blend of his earlier ‘off-the-wall’ style (cf.Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart) with his more recent, even further off-the-wall cult ‘badness’ (ie. The Wicker Man).
I saw the film twice in the space of a week, both in free preview screenings, and noticed an interesting distinction between the two audiences – one at midnight on a Friday in a large cinema in Leicester Square, the other an early-evening, mid-week audience in a Norwich multiplex. It seemed to me like the London screening elicited a much more ironic reading, with the audience clearly ‘getting the joke’ more or less from the outset, with the early pharmacy scene tipping most of the audience (myself included) over the edge.
And yet, despite a full house in Norwich, there was almost no laughter until quite late on, during the fairly standard comedic moment in which Cage’s character delivers his Father’s dog to Eva Mendes before admitting that he doesn’t even know its name. And even that only raised a brief chuckle. Now, I’m not entirely sure what this might mean – and I’m not for one minute suggesting that audiences in London are ‘smarter’ or ‘hipper’ than audiences in the rest of the country – merely that it seemed an interesting distinction to this humble filmgoer.
Then again, these disparate reactions to the film might also, in some ways, help to illustrate my presumption that Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant is basically unreviewable. Why? Well, aside from the wildly differing audience reactions, you might take the fact that Herzog knows exactly what he is doing here, that he knows he is blurring the boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ filmmaking, between action and comedy (not as you would it expect it, but in a very original, refreshing manner and, most importantly, in a completely different space-time continuum to past exponents of action-comedy like Jackie Chan). And you might also take the fact that he uses Nic Cage (of all people), that he occasionally shoots from the perspective on animals, and that he manages to simultaneously explode and confirm American cinematic cliches. Honestly, how can you criticize a film that seems so sure of itself, yet is also completely unwilling to take itself (or its subject matter) at all seriously?
And perhaps that’s why some critics have felt a bit indifferent to this film, and why Mark Kermode, not unreasonably, referred to it as an ‘incidental Herzog’. But surely that is somehow missing the point? After all, there is a distinct undercurrent here which sees Herzog once again challenging the prevailing myths of the society within which he operates, in this case the United States of America.
With Bad Lieutenant, Herzog explodes the myth of America as the ‘land of the free and home of the brave’, via a suggestion that much of the ‘bravery’ of America is tinged with an underlying greed, menace, aggression and, above all, an obfuscation of the ‘truth’. Indeed, this rejection of America’s prevailing myth is also central to Herzog’s earlier refutation of the ‘American dream’ in Stroszek (1977), in which Bruno S. leaves the streets of Berlin behind for a new life in this mythical ‘land of opportunity’.
Whilst the earlier film painted the United States as a place of unfulfilled dreams and desperate disappointment, Bad Lieutenant paints a much darker picture – of a land that has forsaken its own people and its own honour for a misplaced faith in individual liberty and the hero myth.
The fact that Cage’s character, no matter how bad he is, continues to be held up as a ‘hero’ and continues to be promoted through the ranks of the police force, seems to be Herzog arguing against a preference for ‘heroes’ above all else, including the ‘good of the people’. Herzog’s decision to relocate his remake in a New Orleans still visibly ravaged by Katrina half a decade on – a New Orleans left to stew, quite literally, in its own squalor – seems to underline this all the more.