Werner Herzog’s best feature films have a tradition of lunatic heroes being driven to self-destruction by their obsessions and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, is his lunatic-masterpiece. It is far and away my favourite film of the year (perhaps the decade), despite the fact that I understand why most people won’t like it. To me, it is a film that represents just everything that cinema can be: thrilling, funny, clever, surprising, innovative and engaging. It’s also a film that requires a nearly-unhealthy knowledge about the genre it’s riffing on …and therein lays its greatest strength (and weakness). It simply doesn’t play to an audience reared on post-1990 mainstream film. It won’t mean anything to the the Dark Knight crowd. It’s a murderous, metaphysical farce that would have Heath Ledger’s creepy Joker as the protagonist and the Batman as the bad guy. People’s 2010 moral compasses just won’t know what to make of a film where a low-life scumbag, drifting towards an implosion entirely of his own making, is saved (and to a lesser extent, perhaps even redeemed), by a mixture of cunning and blind luck.
As a life-long fan of film noir, Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant is perhaps the ultimate comic deconstruction of a normally deadly-serious genre. It’s a stoner noir, but not in the Big Lebowski mold. Instead of playing with noir tropes and characters like the Coens did, Herzog finds his lunatic-muse in Nicholas Cage’s mercurial performance and then drops him into a relatively-straightforward thriller. There is little in the way of suspense and no mystery as to who killed the Senegalese family at the centre of the plot. Furthermore, the plot doesn’t even contain any specific or ironic twists. The key to enjoying this film resides in understanding that Herzog had no intention of shooting a conventional, naturalistic thriller, even though it may look like one on the surface. This is a bizarre conceptual reworking of the standard neo-noir thriller as seen through the eyes of a madman. It is neither a remake of, nor a sequel to, Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), which starred Harvey Keitel as a psychopathic cop. The linkage between the films ends at sharing a leading character who is a corrupt, drug-addicted police lieutenant and a title. The two projects go off in totally different directions after that.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a film that belongs to Nicholas Cage. In spite of the fact that Cage’s career has been marred by some pretty sketchy performances, he’s absolutely in the zone here. In the immediate aftermath of watching the film, I wasn’t sure whether I’d just been witness to the worst or the best performance of the year. I settled on the later after several days of trying to get Cage out of my head. I couldn’t. I still can't. I also couldn’t think of another contemporary actor who might have located a core of likability within so despicable a character. Cage does. He somehow makes you cheer for his loathsome Terence McDonagh, even while he’s stealing heroin, crack and whatever else he can get his hands on, ripping off clients of his prostitute girlfriend or pointing a loaded gun at some poor old granny in a wheelchair. He spends 80% of the movie in various states of drug-addled paranoia, hallucinates a pair of iguanas that only he (and the audience) can see, and shoots baleful glances at them throughout a scene when they start singing Engelbert Humperdinck’s Please Release Me. And as the noose tightens and all the preceding egregious acts of utterly-vile behavior start to collapse in upon him, the story takes a left turn and delivers as wonderfully bizarre a finale that ever graced a final reel.
Over the last 35-odd years, I’ve watched somewhere around 600 proto, classic, neo, quasi and pretend film noirs and I’ve never seen one that ended like The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. I suppose every now and then we all come across a movie (or a book) that feels like it was specifically written for us ...and this one felt like that for me. Having tracked down and watched nearly every surviving existential crime drama since D.W. Griffith’s 1912 Musketeers of Pig Alley, The Bad Lieutenant seems like the period at the end of the sentence, bringing closure to a long personal journey vicariously taken through film into the black soul of the human condition.
Maybe it’s time to move on.