The minute I told friends I loved Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, they asked, “You mean because it’s good or because it’s a train wreck?”
The truth is, I don’t really know. Imagine The Wire as written by Shane Black. It rides the line between brilliant and brilliantly terrible so well, all I know is that I loved every minute of it and I couldn’t turn away*. Like rock n’ roll, there’s something about a movie being almost bad that makes it infinitely better.
Now, before I get to my wholehearted recommendation, (and a wholehearted recommendation is what this is, in case you wanted to save yourself the trouble of reading the rest), I feel I should first clarify that if the crowd at the screening I attended is at all representative, a lot of people will not like this movie. But I believe I can provide a handy guide to the type of person who will or won’t. I illustrate by way of a story: Last week for Halloween, I dressed in a giant penguin suit with a fake mustache, an outfit I thought was pretty self-explanatory. And yet, a significant number of people came up to me throughout the night to ask, “What are you supposed to be?”
I mentioned this to a friend (known to FilmDrunk as Punchface Thunderdog), and he said, “People treat costumes the same way they treat tattoos and Pulp Fiction. ‘OMG the suitcase contained his soul, I totally figured it out LOL!’”
Which is to say, the kind of people who see a tattoo of a dragon farting a rose and immediately ask, “What does this mean?” are probably the same kind of people who expect/demand reductive clarification. They require a simple answer like, “Rosebud is a sled!” or “the dragon queef is a metaphor for my dead father!” That way, they can set the thing aside, and keep their lives simple and orderly. Suffice to say, I suspect that this is the type of person who will not enjoy Bad Lieutenant. But if you’re the type who recognizes a certain brand of absurdity and appreciates it for its own merit (or even sees in it a more intuitive, less academic logic, i.e., because it’s fun)… Well. You, sir or madame, are in luck.
Right, the plot. Nic Cage is a cop. He starts off a good cop, presumably, and we catch up to him in the first scene when Hurricane Katrina is flooding the jail. An inmate on the first floor begs to be let out so he doesn’t drown in the rising water, and Val Kilmer and Nic Cage just laugh at him. Grumble though he may, and complain about ruining his expensive European underwear (true), Cage takes pity on the man and jumps down from the second floor into the snake-infested water to save him (we know the water is snake infested because Herzog helpfully began the movie by filming a snake for a few minutes). Cut to black. The next thing we know, we’re in a doctor’s office where the doc’s pointing to a spine X-Ray and saying Cage will have back problems for the rest of his life (complications from his water jump, we assume). There’s no cure and his only option is to manage the pain with pills. Next we see Nic Cage get promoted to lieutenant. And… that’s it! That’s the entire setup for Nic Cage spending the next 115 minutes as a drug-addled, amoral, hedonistic, perverted, loose cannon.
People get the wrong idea about motivation. They think every character needs a well-developed origin story. Not true. How Cage becomes a bad lieutenant is glossed over, but who cares? It’s out of the way in the first five minutes. It says to the audience “If you just trust me that this guy is strong, I won’t have to film a montage of him lifting weights and we can all just go straight to watching him smash stuff. Deal?”
They get the wrong idea because of a book like, say, A Million Little Pieces, where the narrator spends the first 200 pages telling you what a suicidal, drug-addicted wreck he is, and when he finally gets around to telling you why, the answer — his first memory was of a really bad tooth ache — comes off as a flaccid embarrassment. In Bad Lieutenant, no information is withheld, thus no buildup, thus it’s never something you feel like you need to know. Water is wet, the sky is blue, and Nic Cage is an awesome, drug-addicted, hunchbacked psycho.
And oh God is he fun to watch. In perhaps the performance of his career, Cage ad-libs some of the best lines, and they are brilliant. In his bizarre, Jimmy Cagney-esque drug drawl, Cage will berate someone as a “sh-t bird,” and in the next breath call him a “sh-t turd,” a clever, stepfatherly improvisation that plays off the more absurd lines, like, “Whatever I take is prescription, except heroin.”
Ostensibly, the plot revolves around Cage’s investigation of the murder of a family of five Senegalese immigrants, who we meet via a hilariously over-the-top diary left by the child. But that leaves plenty of room in William Finkelstein’s script for Cage to steal drugs from upscale club goers, bang their girlfriends in front of them at gunpoint for fun, threaten old ladies, and shuffle around with a .44 revolver shoved down the front of his pants like Al Bundy’s hand. He will do or say anything, especially if it involves drugs, sex, or gambling, and that’s what makes him so fun. Sometimes he’s your id and sometimes he’s just a prick. You can laugh with or at him.
A friend of mine who dragged me to a club once told me it’s funny to watch me dance to electronic music because he can tell that in my mind I’m just making fun of the act of dancing to electronic music. Werner Herzog and former NYPD Blue writer Finkelstein seem like they’re doing much the same thing — making a gritty cop drama without resisting their urge to constantly poke fun at the tenets of gritty cop dramas. The tone varies widely, from totally over the top to oddly affecting, and at any given time Cage can go from babysitting his dad’s dog to smoking crack and framing a drug dealer for murder. Sometimes a scene is a set up for a future plot twist, and sometimes Werner Herzog just wants to film some alligators. Who knows what’ll happen? It’s like filling your underpants with salamanders.
And oh yes, Werner Herzog. Only the dark prince of lockpicking could open a Nic-Cage-fixes-a-parking-ticket scene with a closeup of a twitching roadkill alligator with its guts smeared all over the asphalt. Then there’s snakes, sharks, more alligators, and musical iguanas that may or may not be a figment of Nic Cage’s imagination, all lovingly filmed with handheld camera by Herzog himself. Does that sound awesome? Because it is. I won’t ruin the best scene by describing it at all, but I will say that I nearly jumped out of my seat and shouted “YES!” and shook the guy in front of me by his shoulders.
It’s fun watching Nic Cage just shuffle through life snorting drugs and hanging with Eva Mendes, but just when you’re wondering how the hell they’re going to finish this narratively, a series of events wraps everything up a neat little tongue-in-cheek package.
In a time of committee filmmaking, Bad Lieutenant had one screenwriter and a director** who tries to shoot as little coverage as possible so distributors can’t overrule him on narrative decisions. Adam Carolla described his struggle to make a network sitcom as a series of executives telling him, “I just wish this character could have more hope,” and “You’re losing B-story arc here, and the C-story dropped out in scene two.” And he’d wonder “Why hasn’t anyone said anything about funny? Isn’t this supposed to be funny?”
Similarly, predictably, distributors didn’t like Bad Lieutenant at first, and it didn’t get picked up until it started getting good response at festivals. It’s harder to recognize simpler, more ambiguous merits like “funny” or “entertaining,” especially when you’re someone in the industry terrified of making a mistake. That leaves them to complain only about more quantifiable things like “message” or “story arc,” things like Val Kilmer barely being in the movie and showing up at random times. But if you remove the idiosyncrasies in this, you’d lose what makes it so much fun to watch — the spontaneity, the unpredictability, the craziness. I’m grateful that in this case, the people in charge had enough balls to let it ride.
*Really – I had to pee within the first five minutes and I held it through the whole movie because I didn’t want to miss anything.
**If you’re thinking I’m some kind of Herzog nuthugger who walks around in one of those “Herzog” Metallica logo t-shirts and just loved this because I love anything Herzog does… False. See my panning of his last film for evidence.