Last night, I was able to attend the opening night of the Winter Edition of the Milwaukee Film Festival and catch the Milwaukee premiere of Werner Herzog's THE BAD LIEUTENANT. I had been excited about seeing this film since the project was announced over a year ago. I wasn't sure what to expect especially when considering its relation to Abel Ferrara's BAD LIEUTENANT. Herzog marches to the beat of his own drum, so I knew his film would be substantially different. I was right.
I know it's a bit short-sighted to compare this film to the other, but I feel that they differ in some interesting ways, specifically the setting. Ferrara's film took place in New York and, obviously, Herzog's takes place in New Orleans. Both are notoriously dark, crime-ridden cities, but they each provide a different atmosphere for their respective films. New Orleans is a city suffering in the wake of a catastrophe. It wasn't all sunshine beforehand, but Katrina thoroughly ravaged the area and caused things to go from bad to worse. New Orleans may be a haven for crime, but there's something desperate and highly sympathetic about it. New York is less sympathetic. Its dark side is something we see as entirely self-imposed. There is a corrupt backbone to the city that spans centuries and the descendants of those corrupt individuals continue to impose their ugly nature on the landscape. These different settings also foreshadow the differences in Cage and Keitel's characters. In Ferrara's film, Keitel is a truly horrific human being who does some truly horrific things. There is no catalyst for his behavior, but it probably has something to do with the city itself, his demanding job and the shady environment it puts him in, as well as a predisposition for nastiness. Cage's character, Terrence McDonagh, might have some natural badness in him, but his real troubles begin with an injury sustained committing a good deed and the subsequent chemical dependencies he acquires trying to handle the pain. So therein lies an important difference between the films; we watch Cage with disgust but it is laced with sympathy and considerable more amusement.
That leads me to my next point; the films are of completely different tones. Ferrara's film is a gritty, horrifying, dark drama and also largely plotless. Herzog's film is a true dark comedy. The whole film is spastic and uneven, but with a central, identifiable plot. I've seen it referred to as campy, which I'd agree with. There are some ridiculous moments that just don't seem conducive to good plotting (I'm thinking specifically of the 'all is well' scene in the police station toward the very end), but I believe that this is a desired effect as Herzog is certainly talented enough to avoid such things if he wanted to. Cage carries the film as the gradually sinking title character. His performance is uncomfortable, but very entertaining. He is constantly doing drugs and, at one point, he cuts off an elderly woman's oxygen during an investigation, but the audience was chuckling throughout. Just prior to the incident with the old lady, Cage is revealed to have been hiding behind a door with an electric shaver. This is the moment when I was completely sold on the performance. Perhaps the most uncomfortable scene was one that is an obvious throwback to the original film, in which the Lieutenant stops a couple, looking to score some drugs and receives a sexual bribe. This is a dark scene, but the insanity of the performance elicits a shocked chuckle. Keitel's performance in a similar scene from the 1992 film is almost too horrible to watch and certainly doesn't incite any laughter.
Keitel's turn as The Bad Lieutenant is one of the best performances of the 90's, the term tour de force comes to mind. It's powerful, sad, moving and ugly. Cage's Bad Lieutenant isn't the same guy. I'd call him sad and quirky, but I don't mean to disparage the performance at all. I am firmly of the opinion that he should have been nominated at this year's Academy Awards for Best Actor. Cage's career seems like it is rife with missed opportunity. In reality, he seems like a pretty weird dude, but he doesn't embrace that as often as he should in picking his movie roles. He often takes on these big-budget action roles that he just isn't right for. How he got to be the action star that he is is a curiosity, but I suppose he makes a lot more doing those types of films. However, I think he could play eccentric sorts for the rest of his career with great success. I'd especially like to see him team with Herzog again, who has to be credited somewhat with the quality of the performance, as the director has quite a flair for the eccentric.
Apart from Cage, the supporting cast all put in decent performances. Eva Mendes was very good as was Val Kilmer in the role of the trigger happy partner. I actually would have liked to see more of Kilmer, a demand that he seems to already be trying to meet through consistent weight gain.
Lastly, I was impressed, though not surprised, at how well Herzog captured the fascinating setting. I know there are a lot of incentives for shooting in Louisiana, but this film really captured the details of the area that other films would likely choose to ignore. I know BENJAMIN BUTTON was shot there, but a lot of the time that film appeared to take place on elaborate sets or be altered by post-production computer wizardry. THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL - NEW ORLEANS really puts you right in the city it claims in the title.
I will be heading back to the festival tomorrow for FISH TANK.