A Burlesque Imitation with a Noir Sense of Humor

in 11st Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival

by Mario Abbade

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) has been seen and believed to be a remaking of the celebrated, also titled Bad Lieutenant (1992), directed by Abel Ferrara, an American filmmaker born in New York. Nevertheless, and in spite of drinking from the same fountain, the movie directed by Werner Herzog is not a remake. This feature film can be seen as a burlesque imitation on the same subject and of a corrupt, amoral, drug addicted policeman. A noir sense of humor and a surreal approach is the fuel of plot. 

In William Finkelstein’s script, the detective Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) seriously injures his back trying to rescue people from drowning during the Hurricane Katrina crisis in New Orleans. Owing to his heroic gesture, he is promoted to Lieutenant. On the other hand, he becomes dependent upon powerful analgesics in order to endure the pain. One year later, he is dependent upon Vicodin and cocaine. In order to satiate his dependence, he becomes involved in several illegal activities, such as stealing drugs from dependent people or from the Police Department’s Evidence Room, aided by the sectors’ man in charge, Mundt (Michael Shannon). At the same time, he has an affair with a high-class prostitute, who is also a drug addicted. 

Besides his chemical addiction, McDonagh is a convicted gambler, who owes an enormous sum of money to his bookmaker (Brad Dourif). His partner (Val Kilmer), who is a corrupt policeman as well, reveals a psychopathic preference for killing instead of arresting the suspects. To complete the picture, McDonagh’s father (Tom Bower) is an alcoholic undergoing treatment, who continues to drink with his also alcoholic wife (Jennifer Coolidge). Admid this disturbing relationship, McDonagh struggles to find the assassin of an African immigrant family. 

Werner Herzog begins the intrigue right after Katrina’s passage through the recurrent theme that nature can be bestial to human beings. (For example: the fatal accident that occurs as a consequence of a crocodile run over by a car.) His intention in showing that the storm has not yet ended for McDonagh is very clear. His way of living can be seen as a hurricane’s post chaos. In order to contrast the windstorm of his life, Herzog will always picture a sunny New Orleans, with the exception of a few takes that exhibit stronger images of the story being told. The fact that Herzog shows a not cloudy New Orleans, as it is known,a stage of noir stories or its involvement with voodoo practices, breaks with tradition. Opposing his view of the sunny side of such a universe, Herzog populates the jazzy port town with corrupted characters, with very few exceptions. 

There are many references to other movies, with scenes showing iguanas, chameleons and crocodiles when McDonagh is under the influence of drugs. These references are reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), directed by Terry Gilliam. To visualize iguanas as a consequence of the use of cocaine or heroin is a notion used several times in feature films, as in Cheech & Chong’s satirical films. The difference resides in how Herzog registers the reptiles with very close takes and a few deformed scenes in which the blues punctuate. To watch these scenes paying attention to the words of the lyrics helps in understanding its significance. Even the name of the nightclub in which McDonagh gets hold of his victims is related to reptiles. 

Other interesting references are captured by the way Herzog plays with the myth of the ‘above-the-law’ tough policeman, created in the late ‘60s and ‘70s (Bullitt, 1968 and Serpico, 1973, amongst others). Besides the fact that McDonagh uses a Magnum 44, he also acts the same way as Dirty Harry (performed by Clint Eastwood). The difference is that Harry is the opposite: almost a fascist column against corruption, while McDonagh uses the same methods, but always for his own benefit. 

As a matter of fact, the best comparison is with Lieutenant, the character viscerally played by Harvey Keitel in Ferrara’s film. Keitel afforded his character with an auto-destructive attitude, loaded with Catholic guilt (a favorite theme for Ferrara), in which redemption is the only possible spiritual salvation. Herzog not only abandons this topic, but Nicolas Cage created his character as if it was a “Nosferatu” (a remaking of Herzog, his own, back in 1979); a kind of a modern vampire going mad, little by little, walking in a bent way (due to the lesion inflicted on the character’s back), showing a mad look caused by drug use. 

Asked by Herzog, Cage used a bunch of improvisations in his parts as well as body language because, if New Orleans was the birth of Jazz, nothing would be more natural and appropriate than this way of showing it; a role that would fit like a glove to the latter Klaus Kinski, an actor considered Herzog’s muse, always portraying extremely well his obsessive creations or psychologically intense characters. 

Cage’s mannerism, in spite of being exaggerated, corroborates the scripts’ intention mounted on a noir type of humor. Between violent and aggressive sequences, the public who accepts thi approach will certainly laugh with the absurdity of these situations. 

Other than that, there isn’t much left for the rest of the cast to be considered awesome, but when that happens, one can see that they defend their characters with the right mood. Besides the actors mentioned above, the presence of Fairuza Balk, as a sensual policewoman, is remarkable, as is that of the rapper Xzibit performing Big Fate, the drug dealer. Nevertheless, it is important to say that all the mentioned references are merely acting, for Herzog says that he did not see Ferrara’s movie, and had not been looking for inspiration in someone else’s films; if any influence occurred it was unconscious.

Herzog flirts with noir humor for sure; even as the movie is finished in a fable style, each piece of McDonagh’s emotional puzzle fits in a perfect way. In order to achieve such objective, Herzog is ridiculous on purpose, in the end. To brake this delicate moment, he shows the tenuous line that separates the predators from their victims in the reflexive scene seen at the aquarium. The one who devours can also be devoured. Also, that a Happy Ending does not necessarily make people re-think their lifestyle to the point of changing it.

Edited by: Tara Judah