Movie Review: Werner Herzog riffs on Abel Ferrara in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”

“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” is the wackiest send up of the investigative thriller since Robert Altman crucified Philip Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye.” It is also a clear-headed satire of our national belief that, no matter how badly we behave, someone will always bail us out with a nice stimulus package.

Nicolas Cage has got to be one of the most grotesque actors to break into the league of major film stars. Five minutes of his antics as Detective Terence McDonagh is all it takes to see he is no match for Harvey Keitel, star of the original “Bad Lieutenant.” But Keitel would have been ill-suited for Herzog’s intentions. Cage, however, is the perfect buffoon for the job. He is a Groucho Marx with a badge, a gun, and no conscience about how he uses either one.

The supporting cast was appropriately chosen and uniformly outrageous, but special kudos are deserved by Eva Mendes in what could have been a throwaway part as the cop’s hooker girlfriend. This thankless character is usually some washed-out piece of street trash who uses her last 5% of redemptive credit to take a bullet for the hero in the last reel. Not this one. Mendes’ Frankie Donnenfield is sexy, devoted, and funny, with a survivalist spirit that can keep a dead man on his feet.

One of Herzog’s accomplishments is the liberation of African-American and Latino characters from the behavioral constraints of genre stereotypes, resulting in a panoply of expression rarely afforded to African-American characters, even in pictures set primarily in communities where they are not marginalized. This is not to say the characters are not stereotypes, because they are, or that they play against stereotype, because they don’t. But Herzog frees these drug dealers, reticent witnesses, and subservient nurses from the limited clichés of crummy movie scripts, letting them behave as real people even though their function is mechanical.

Herzog understands how stupid this kind of movie is, so he feels no obligation to conform to its silly fundamentals. He does as he pleases with the scenes, regardless of how off-the-wall his ideas are, and succeeds in making the scenes better than they might have been if directed with serious intent. Quentin Tarentino is a similarly inclined director, but his screwiness comes from emulating the bad taste of work he finds admirable, while Herzog is simply trying to find something interesting in that which is inherently dull and insipid.

Abel Ferrara, director of the original “Bad Lieutenant,” was as serious as St. John of the Cross. His film was a journey into the heart of Catholicism, each act of self-debasement being the result of an encounter with the church which led, finally, to an imitation of Christ that triggered more evil than it redeemed. Herzog’s lieutenant is neither hounded by morality nor obsessed with the paradox of forgiveness. He just wants to scarf up whatever money and drugs are within his reach.

Herzog’s vision is secular. He sees America as a land of suicidal excess, where machines scream at you to insert more coins, where bodies are thrown into the river as casually as under-sized fish, where an alligator vengefully eyes the highway where his mate has been turned into road-kill, and where a cop can break every rule in the book and come out of it with honors. This is the America where the balance of power is a simple matter of balancing the heroin with the cocaine so you don’t fall asleep at the board meeting, and where the swindling managers of fraudulent companies are given bail-out bonuses by the federal government.

It is an optimistic view of society, one that gives a condemned man the faith that a telephone call from the governor will bring a stay of execution. And where does America get such optimism? I think they get it from the movies.

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