17 November 2014 | rooprect
Moments of brilliance
Herzog's popularity, and some might say his entire career, came from his long partnership with the incomparable firestorm of an actor Klaus Kinski. In Herzog's own words, their "joint derangement must have converged to create great art". Whether Herzog was referring to Kinski's explosive fury on screen or something more insidious such as the real life allegations that Kinski sexually molested his daughter from age 5 to 19, we don't know. My point is that Herzog had the ability to draw on Kinski's madness & evil to create some very memorable films about precisely that: madness & evil ("Aguirre", "Fitzcarraldo", "Nosferatu"). After Kinski died, Herzog's films were considerably less explosive although he still pushed those dark themes.
Here in "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans", once again we get the familiar themes of madness and depravity, and although it doesn't quite strike that horrifying Kinski vein, it has moments of brilliance thanks to an excellent acting job by Nicolas Cage.
We also get, at the core, a well-written story by William Finkelstein who wrote extensively for gritty TV crime dramas like "NYPD Blue", "Law & Order" and "L.A. Law".
It's the story of a rogue New Orleans cop who is investigating a series of murders while he himself flirts with depravity as he battles with drug-related issues and moral degradation. What's important to note is the familiar Herzoggian theme of madness and the thrill of of evil on the human soul. Cage plays a detective who, on the surface, is a cool-tempered & intelligent hero, a likable guy really. But he begins to descend into depravity, and there are 1 or 2 moments of outright sickening behavior (such as falsely arresting, then having sex with a woman in exchange for letting her go). This is not a film for the morally faint of heart. It is intended to morally shock us, and that it does.
But what's interesting is the way Cage's portrayal remains heroic (the good guy), unlike Kinski's villainous portrayals (the monster). In the past, Herzog-Kinski films presented us with a vision of evil which thrilled us in a guilty way, as if we're passing a gory car wreck. Here we have the much more comfortable yet equally challenging perspective of watching a good guy who can't resist the thrill of depravity. So from a safer distance from evil, we can watch the story unfold.
I don't know if it's that subtle thematic difference, or simply the idea that Nicolas Cage is not an alleged incestuous child abuser, that made me enjoy this film in a lighter way. I should note that this film also carries much more humor and playful dark comedy than any of Herzog's other films I've seen. In the 2nd half of the film, Cage's frenetic portrayal of a coked-up, cracked-up drug fiend was done a comedic air... along with some hilarious surreal visuals & music (the break dancing scene had me laughing out loud).
Ultimately, we get a "morality tale" which is very gritty, very comic, very morally disturbing, and yet it doesn't leave us with a sick feeling like certain other films which explore the evil nature of human beings. In fact, with the exception of the disturbing sexual bribe scene, "Bad Lieutenant" could almost be watched as a dark comedy from start to finish. It's a different approach for Herzog, one which would be great to see him explore in the future.
Final note worth mentioning, since Herzog's early films were notorious for having real animal abuse/killing that may disturb some viewers: Yes, there is a scene of a dead alligator with her guts spilled out, and yes it is real. But according to the DVD extras, the alligator carcass was purchased from (presumably) New Orleans animal control because it was a "nuisance alligator eating people's pets and stuff." I think there was an American Humane "no animals harmed" disclaimer at the end of the movie.