The Nic Cage Project: The Bad Lieutenant

March 31, 2012

To celebrate TIFF’s ongoing Bangkok Dangerous: The Cinema Of Nicolas Cage series, Alan Jones has resurrected his retrospective of the actor’s work entitled The Nic Cage Project. In this edition, Jones takes a look at Werner Herzog’s hypnotizing genre exercise  The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – playing tonight at the Lightbox.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans - Nicolas Cage

There are some great filmmakers that agonize over the details of their films. Think Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick. They are perfectionists. They wait years – sometimes decades – until they find a producer that will let them follow their vision without interference. They spend tens of millions of dollars ensuring that no little trivial piece of their film will detract from its greatness. And then there is Werner Herzog. Similarly, there are some actors that collaborate with directors to find the perfect performance. They listen attentively, they delve deep into the script, and they emulate the character on the page as if it was playing out in the mind of the director as he was reading it. And then there’s Nic Cage.

Perhaps the best place to begin a discussion on The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is by comparing it to the other scripted feature Werner Herzog produced that year, the David Lynch-executive produced (whatever that means) My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, starring Michael Shannon. Both films are largely showcases for their main actors, who are both known for eccentric and idiosyncratic roles. But My Son, My Son doesn’t click. Shannon is too calm, his decisions as an actor are too calculated, too planned out, too plodding. In his striving for perfection, he doesn’t offer enough spontaneous moments of energy. He doesn’t provide enough interest.

Herzog, more often a documentarian than someone who works with actors, is an observer. He observes interesting things happen, and he records them. Perhaps this is why he works so well with Nicolas Cage, an actor who says things like “You have to let the actors have total freedom. The worst thing you can do as a director is to fix something that isn’t broken, and when you go in and start giving them direction, it completely shuts them down.” If nothing else, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans exists as an example of how Cage acts when he is let loose and given complete control. He pulls large weapons on old women and threatens them with so much intensity that it becomes farcical rather than threatening. When he talks about his lucky crack-pipe, he doesn’t do it with a smirk and a touch of facetiousness, he does it with wide open eyes and an hysteric cackle. When he discusses his lucky silver spoon with his prostitute-girlfriend (Eva Mendes), he does it with a child-like innocence that belies the banality of the dialogue.

But placing the greatness of the film on the bizarro moments of Cage, doing things like shooting break-dancing corpses and staring down imaginary iguanas, doesn’t really do the film justice. What makes The Bad Lieutenant click is not just the ticking time-bomb energy of Cage, but also the absolute disconnect between the generic police procedural screenplay and the director’s utter disinterest for the style of filmmaking it calls for. Screenwriter William Finkelstein may be good at what he does (I wouldn’t know), which, for most of his career, has entailed writing episodes of L.A. Law and Law & Order.  But that’s not what Herzog was looking for here.

As Herzog presents it, a drug-addled Nic Cage having hallucinations superbly funny. From a consumer grade digital camera, we see an iguana’s face from a low angle. Above him is Cage, giving the iguana a dirty look, glaring at it from the corner of his eyes, exuding distrust while the quintessentially New Orleans “Release Me” by Johnny Adams plays on the soundtrack. At one point Cage reaches over and flicks the iguana. He knows it isn’t real, but what if it is? The same scene could have been far less interesting if presented from the lieutenant’s point of view, his hallucinations of serious things (like brutal murders) visualized with CSI-esque blue filters and grain, while his partner shows serious concern about his state of mind. Instead of that, Cage’s partner (a bloated Val Kilmer) says “What fucking iguanas?” and then they get back to arguing about procedure.

Perhaps the most telling scene of the movie is one that occurs near the end of the film. I won’t give it away, because that would technically constitute a “spoiler,” but three plot lines (in screenwriter talk, the A, B, and C stories) are all wrapped up in a single, cheerful, conflict-free scene. It’s as if Herzog walked up to the screenwriter and said, in his soothing German accent: “I don’t care about you plot or the exposition. I just want to find the real truth. The kind of truth you can’t get by reading a phone book. You can’t find that type of truth with all this plot.”

I want to mention, in order to put this film’s existence into context, that despite being discussed as an art film in the press, and despite playing film festivals before its release, The Bad Lieutenant was marketed purely as a Direct-to-DVD action film. If you don’t believe me, check out the generic police procedural trailer, or the generic Hollywood-star-in-an-action-movie poster. It was also produced by Avi Lerner of Millenium Films, who makes most of his money from uninspiring and cheap action films, including one of Cage’s most recent films, Trespass. It seems as though Herzog was given the freedom to make one of the most bizarre police films ever simply because no one cared about quality. Their financial hopes were stacked on the chance that the lay audience would see a generic poster of Nicolas Cage looking serious on NetFlix, and say to themselves “Yeah, I guess this’ll do.” If this is really the case, then I applaud Avi Lerner and Millenium Films. I hope they make decisions like that more often. I hope they hire Harmony Korine to direct a drug smuggling movie starring Ben Foster and Harvey Keitel. I hope they accidentally let more auteurs experiment in a mainstream genre. Because, really, when it comes to Direct-to-DVD action films, no one gives a shit about consistency anyways.

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