Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
For a long time, the cheapest place to shoot a movie was in Canada, often in Vancouver. Virtually every movie that was supposed to take place in New York City would be comprised of a few aerial shots of Manhattan and then any external scenes would be shot in close enough where you couldn’t identify the location, or with out-of-focus mock-ups of street signs in the background. Lots of movies faked it fairly well, but occasionally you’d get an eyesore like The Fantastic Four, a $100 million movie that, despite its probably expensive sets and CGI, has a visual fuzziness that make it look like it was shot for the USA Network in 1993.
Much like the Alan Smithee secret, once it was common knowledge that a large number of studio films were shot in Vancouver or Toronto, apparently Canada priced itself out of the market and the new haven became “war-torn” areas in Eastern Europe like Poland and Romania. Bucharest in particular was central to the direct-to-video films of Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Wesley Snipes, so much so that if you watched more than one, you’d start recognizing the same locations being used over and over. And that same theme continued with the use of financially distraught areas, as New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, turned into a stand-in for all mid-budget films looking to show widespread poverty and destruction without having to actually blow anything up. You can see examples of this with recent DTV movies like Streets of Blood which starred Val Kilmer, 50 Cent, and Sharon Stone.
And no one took more advantage of the cheap location situations than producer Elie Samaha (Battlefield Earth, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, A Sound of Thunder) and his occasional partner Avi Lerner, both of who had their hands in many a DTV Seagal, Stallone, and Van Damme film* amongst the big budget films they produced for Franchise Pictures, an arm of Warner Brothers. After Samaha was successfully sued for scamming financiers by inflating reported budgets, Lerner took over the market and has been in control of the business of selling overseas rights to a movie before it was made with his Millennium Films**. Teaming up with Val Kilmer seemed like a natural fit, Kilmer has been pimping his home state of New Mexico as a potential movie location for more than 10 years, and so Lerner shot some films in New Mexico and convinced Kilmer to work in New Orleans.
This lengthy preamble is to explain that in all ways, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog’s non-remake/sequel to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 original, is the result of a financial deal coming together in the strangest of ways, and has nothing to do with actual filmmaking. Co-producer Edward Pressman owned the Bad Lieutenant title, so he slapped it onto this new film, which stars Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, and Eva Mendes, regardless of whether it fit or not. Yes, Herzog’s film is about an out-of-control cop into gambling and drugs, and there’s a variation on the scene in the first film where, instead of arresting two girls, he forces them to show him their body parts while he masturbates, but otherwise, the films have nothing to do with each other.
Whether Herzog made Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans as a way to get another film he wanted to shoot financed, the as-yet-undistributed My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, is unclear. Both films premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this year, and Herzog stated in an article recently that Bad Lieutenant was shot in three weeks with novice producers on set allowing him to do what he wanted and move on. And that’s pretty much how the movie plays. Herzog gives us Crocodile and Iguana POV shots while Cage acts wildly over the top amidst a very standard police procedural.
Herzog’s apparent disinterest in the film and his need to play around with things that are pretty much unrelated to what’s going in the story is similar to what Marcus Nispel was doing on his recent Friday the 13th remake, filling his genre requirements and moving on to shoot what he thought actually required focus. Herzog shoots most of Bad Lieutenant like a grim version of a Tsui Hark film (Time and Tide, Double Team), with bizarre camera angles trying to make up for the overt simplicity of the story. What works in the film is that Cage’s performance is all over the map as juxtaposition to the frankly dull story he finds himself in. The humor Cage provides is both intentional and unintentional, he walks like he has mud in his shoes, holds one shoulder up higher than the other (presumably to represent a back injury that is the inciting incident for the entire plot), and his face becomes more and more immobilized as the movie goes along. But then he’ll forget to maintain a facial tic or body pose, which seems in line with the carelessness of the rest of the film which already has wretched continuity problems.
Cage seems to be doing an impression of one of Joe Spinell’s sweaty, manic performances (such as in Maniac) and he’s the whole movie, Kilmer and Mendes just stand around playing underwritten roles. If anything, what Cage is doing is like the culmination of all the early promise of his amusingly overacted roles in The Vampire’s Kiss, Birdy, Moonstruck, and Wild At Heart before he drifted off into Jerry Bruckheimer paycheck-land (Con Air, Gone in 60 Seconds, National Treasure). Bad Lieutenant is better than his recent remake of The Wicker Man, and Cage has a fantastically funny scene where he cuts off the air flow to an old lady while pointing a gun at her caretaker, just so he can get some information.
However, apart from Cage, there simply isn’t enough energy in Bad Lieutenant, not enough wacky dialogue (“I got Swiss cotton underwear!”), not enough variations on the boilerplate “cop protecting the drug dealer” scam, and not enough weird diversions to justify the over 2 hour running time. That is, until the last twenty minutes, which plays like Herzog was fired and they brought in Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) or the ghost of Frank Capra to give this downbeat and off-kilter film a happy ending. All of Cage’s problems are wrapped up in one quick scene, even though they didn’t need to be for us to understand his predicament, and then we get the telltale signs of a mandated re-shoot, titles saying one year later, characters with wigs to cover up their new hair length, and plot developments that are completely out of whack with the previous 100 minutes.
I’ve been told by LA Times journalist Chris Lee, who interviewed Herzog and Cage recently that Herzog apparently shot exactly what he wanted and the ending is as he desired it to be. In that case, Herzog may have been trying to pull the rug out from under us and turned the movie into a parody of cop clichés (though Herzog has said that he “doesn’t understand irony”), but it’s such a whiplash that it doesn’t work. The movie could have ended without the last few scenes and been far more tense and suspenseful. As it stands now, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans plays as if Schindler’s List ended with an energetic musical performance by The Muppets.
* Lerner and Samaha are the masters at getting a fading star to take a pay cut to make their dream project, most of which end up as indistinguishable DTV movies.
** A conversation I had with fellow critic Irv Slifkin before the screening was about the possibility of the insanity of Bela Tarr making a Steven Seagal film, much like Herzog, an acclaimed documentarian, making an exploitation-for-hire film like Bad Lieutenant. When Avi Lerner’s Millennium Films credit came on the screen, I whispered to Irv, “I guess this is what that Seagal-Tarr movie would look like.”