Monday, September 21, 2009

Toronto FilmFest Reviews: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

#2 in the "didn't see the original" lineup for this year's fest. (I actually ended up skipping the third.) This has been a fascinating movie to watch being made--you've got one of the most eccentric directors and one of the most eccentric actors around, plus a feud between Herzog and the director of the original (not the most sane of directors himself), a villain played by a (shudder) rapper-turend-actor, and a small role for Val Kilmer into the bargain. Throw in one of the most off-the-wall trailers of the year, and it doesn't seem that unreasonable that the end product would be one of the most memorably deranged movies ever made. And yet this movie--despite certainly having off-the-wall moments--is ultimately disappointingly conventional.

Nicholas Cage plays Terence McDonough (No relation to H.I., I assume), the titular Bad Lieutenant this time out. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Cage did something valorous--it may have been saving a prisoner who'd been in lock-up as the flood waters rose around him, and who Cage (and his partner Stevie Pruit--Kilmer) seemed happy to let drown right up until the last moment. It's not made clear if that's what earns him his promotion to lieutenant, or indeed if it's what caused the back pain that plagues him a year later. Terry's prescribed medication by his doctor, but being the rotten egg he is Terry already seems to have other pharmaceutical interests, including crack which a fellow officer regularly procures for him from the evidence room, and which he shares with his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes). Unfortunately, the other officer is getting cold feet, and Terry's supply is drying up; he's reduced to shaking down kids outside of clubs (or maybe "reduced" isn't the right word--he seems to outright relish it).

At any rate, the plot kicks off with the murder of a family of Sengalese immigrants who may have been involved with drugs. The clues are pointing at a local drug dealer, Big Fate (Xzibit, who's not bad, despite my earlier snark) but as Terry pursues him, he seems to care less and less about solving the crime and more about finding ways to turn Big Fate into a useful friend. Meanwhile his gambling debts are piling up, his encounter with one of Frankie's customers leads to even bigger trouble, and the cocktail of drugs coursing through his system are on the brink of causing a neurological meltdown.

The movie I was most reminded of, watching this flick, was Scarface, despite the fact that the protagonist is ostensibly on the other side of the law. Both movies chart the "professional" rise and the psychological breakdown of a larger-than-life criminal who revels in bad behaviour, who may be troubled by guilt and even entertain thoughts of redemption, but doesn't seem to know how to accomplish this except by getting into more trouble. This tension between whether Terry will make a play at redemption or fall completely to the dark side powers the movie, and the outcome is by no means certain in a Werner Herzog movie. Likewise, Cage, in his usual full-throttle crazy mode, is constantly entertaining. We may not like to admit it, but we--or many of us, at least--enjoy watching people Get Away With It, indulging in our worst impulses without consequences (at least not for a while), and this movie provides this exact spectacle. In fact, this may be Cage's magnum opus when it comes to crazy performances.

Unfortunately, the movie itself is nowhere near as entertainingly unhinged as its protagonist. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen everything that qualifies as a "WTF" moment; the rest is a pretty conventional police/crime thriller. According to Herzog's remarks at the beginning, he didn't want to call the movie "Bad Lieutenant" at all, but he was being financed by the guy who owned the rights, and "wanted to start a franchise". This is a truly lousy idea, unless said financier plans to hire every demented director he can to keep remaking this movie in different cities. But even then, the end results here tend far more towards the conventional than you would hope, so I have a hard time getting behind that idea either. All in all, the various misconceived, train-wreck aspects of this movie seem to have cancelled each other out and resulted in a watchable but disappointingly middle-of-the-road flick.

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