Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve done some research and found out that “the police” are a controversial topic right now that some people are quite upset about. As such I thought we’d take a look at two documentaries that will go some way to explain why people may not think they are being served and protected, with Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant, and, of all people, Werner Herzog’s 2006 Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
I’m no Abel Ferrara historian, but based on my hazy memories of King of New York I think by the nineties he’d settled down a bit from his video nasties phase that brought him to public attention with Driller Killer and Ms. 45, the latter being the sort of film that credits him with an acting performance of the character “1st rapist”, as though it’s an orchestra or something. At any rate, Bad Lieutenant is very much the sort of film that would have caused Mary Whitehouse to get all hot and bothered about.
Harvey Keitel takes the lead as our unnamed Noo Yawk copper, who in short order after we’re introduced to him will have stolen evidence from a crime scene, a bag o’drugs, in order to sell to his pet drug dealer, smoked a bit of the ol’ crack, cheated on his wife and got himself deeper in debt with his bookie on a series of failed baseball bets. And somehow he’ll get much worse over the course of the piece.
In as much as there is any kind of narrative driver to the film, it’s to track down the rapists of Frankie Thorn’s young nun, an act which we are not spared, although any such sleuthing will have to wait until The Lieutenant has sexually assaulted two young women after a traffic stop.
This ridiculous spiral will continue until the stress of impending retribution from the bookies and the metric butt-ton of drugs and booze causes him to have a meltdown in a church, mewling like Beaker off the Muppets and hallucinating a vision of Christ, which Mark Kermode says makes this a rightly hailed powerful tale of redemptive Catholicism, but which I’ll simply call stupid.
And so it goes. I first watched this back in my teenage years, and I didn’t think all that much of it then and I don’t think time has shifted my opinion of it. It’s, obviously, a filthy old film, but where as something like Taxi Driver at least presented a character you’d want to pick apart and see what makes Travis Bickle tick, here The Lieutenant is so cartoonishly, pulpishly dreadful that there’s little interest to be had with him. We are left only hoping that we will see him being fed into a woodchipper, and that this doesn’t happen is surely cinema’s biggest missed opportunity.
We can’t fault Keitel’s performance, I suppose, as he’s certainly committed deeply to the role. Indeed, we see far more of him than any sane person would want to, and if you so desire I suppose there’s some axes that you could judge this as not being a bad film.
My overriding issue with this, however, is that I do not discern any useful point to this sleazefest. Kietel is a Bad Lieutenant, that much is driven home, but I cannot accept a drug induced freakout, then aiding felons to elude justice, then getting shot, as being any sort of redemptive character arc, particularly for a character who deserves much worse. I suppose I’m just too Old Testament.
This film is like wallowing in mud for ninety minutes, and I suppose there’s a use for something like this in cinema, even if I’m damned if I can see one. If cinema is about feeling, then there’s perhaps a time for something that makes you feel gross and dissatisfied, like you’re covered in a thin film of grease.
In short, I’m glad that I do not have to think of this film ever again.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was, to put it mildly, in a right old state. We begin Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans with police officers Terence McDonagh (Nic Cage) and Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) deciding quite what to do with a prisoner in a holding cell, flood waters rising. Pruit says why waste your nice clothes diving into a river of muck to spare someone who is presumably a lost cause but, despite protesting the resultant state of his $55 underwear, McDonagh jumps in nonetheless and opens the cell, earning himself a promotion to Lieutenant and an injury that manifests as crippling back pain for his heroism.
It’s an interesting choice to open the movie on a moral act of McDonagh’s, because from here on in it’s all downhill for the character. One quick prescription for Vicodin and a “6 months later” caption, and McDonagh is out on the streets shaking down petty criminals for either their cash or their class A drugs, and quite happy to hold a boyfriend at gunpoint while they watch their partner engage in arrest-avoiding sexual favours. How the mighty have fallen.
Shortly thereafter McDonagh finds himself investigating the murder of a family of five Senegalese illegal immigrants, the patriarch of which appears to have been involved in dealing crack. Thus begins the police procedural aspect of the movie, though the emphasis throughout remains very much on the increasingly unhinged and depraved behaviour of Cage’s character as he works the case, using every aspect of his investigation to leverage those involved for the benefit of his now rampant drug habits. After all, there’s nothing wrong with benefiting personally from an active murder investigation, right?
In some respects this movie is not what I imagine a Herzog narrative movie to be, and I say that because aside from his documentary work I realised recently that I’ve only ever seen this and Rescue Dawn. Without the involvement of Herzog and Cage (more of him in a minute), BL:PoCNO would be a pretty run of the mill corrupt cop B movie with an absolutely perfunctory procedural overlay. Somehow, however, in playing freeform jazz with William M. Finkelstein’s script as the movie was shot, Herzog has injected just enough of his own leftfield signature to elevate it from the norm, and has given Cage just enough run on the line to make it a thoroughly entertaining, if occasionally depraved piece of entertainment.
Yes, we get crazy, whooping Cage here, but the tone of his performance remains just sombre enough to convince us that events are either believable, or convincingly explained away as the interpretation of a crack-addled mind. Much as Leaving Las Vegas gave us the occasional alcohol-fuelled aside as a window into that performance, here among other things we get hallucinated iguanas seemingly shuffling about to the strains of Johnny Adams singing “Release Me,” which of course no one but McDonagh can see no matter how much he protests to his colleagues on a stakeout. It’s actually one of the more enjoyable performances Cage has given in the last twenty years, notwithstanding the straight to VOD material I have no compulsion to check, and with the caveat that “enjoyable” does not condone McDonagh’s actions.
The supporting cast is a surprisingly robust assortment of familiar faces, some of whom I had completely forgotten in the intervening decade since we originally reviewed this. Eva Mendes is criminally underused as McDonagh’s call girl partner, more of a means for the crooked cop to crowbar money and drugs out of clients than anything substantial character-wise. Other notable mentions go to Shea Whigham (“oh yeah!”) as someone McDonagh really ought not to have shaken down, and Xzibit as a local drugs kingpin who, if nothing else, got to be on set the day Nic Cage delivered the line “shoot him again; his soul is still dancing!”
With no real moral judgement to seemingly make, no purpose other than to stir things up a bit, and an ending that comes in at 90 degrees to the madness, it is hard to commit to something so fragile as words exactly what it is Port of Call manages to achieve. In 2010 Scott described this film as “absolute garbage, but really, really brilliant garbage.” We struggled then to qualify quite what was so great about it, but we very much enjoyed it. Despite having forgotten everything bar the “soul still dancing” in the intervening years, I was surprised to find that age has largely not wearied Port of Call, and I once again thoroughly enjoyed it. Much as back then I think you should really watch it, though I make no case for it.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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