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Bad — I Mean, Really Bad — Lieutenant

  • 11/20/09 at 11:33 PM

Although I’m not always in sync with the mainstream audience or my fellow critics, I pride myself on understanding why, say, a royal pile of dung like Titanic moved so many people, why “the Twilight saga” takes up so much space in the fantasy lives of teen girls and teen-girls-at-heart (not all of them girls), and why no Lars von Trier atrocity will ever be rejected from the New York Film Festival. I don’t share those sentiments, but I get them. Here’s what I don’t get: how anyone could think Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans works on any level, even as camp. Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant was no prize — it was pulp with laughably florid anguished-Catholic pretensions. But it did have a scene that’s among the most disturbing in the annals of sleaze: Harvey Keitel’s protracted torture and blackmail of two young women whose car he has pulled over. I wasn’t certain — I’m still not certain — those were actresses acting. In the new movie, Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage imitate that scene (Cage waylays and blackmails a couple leaving a nightclub), but it has no emotional kick, no suggestion of real people being violated. It’s just Cage getting his rocks off. Folks, he’s terrible in this movie, and I say that as someone who championed his eye-rolling Renfield act in Vampire’s Kiss. He’s attempting to deliver the most live-wire, gonzo performance in the history of film, but he looks like a high-school actor doing a bad Nixon impersonation.

As Herzog and Cage pile on the drug abuse, we expect this bad lieutenant to go down hard. Instead, they pull a deus-ex-machina switcheroo that’s written and staged so absurdly that I thought it had to be the dream of the dying protagonist, something along the lines of Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Only he doesn’t wake up. That's the ending for real. Our more formalist critics will make the case that the resolution is “ironic” and that Herzog is mocking Hollywood conventions. To me, it looked like he was pissing away his movie in an attempt to top his self-destructive loon of a lead actor. And oy, those lizard POVs … in the end, I can only throw up my hands. I love Werner Herzog. I admire Nic Cage's performance-artist-like impulse to add madness to his Method. But there’s no drug on Earth that would make me see Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans as anything but an amateur hour championed by pseuds.