Two days later, I’m still perplexed by it. But then again, it was perplexing right from the first announcement. Why was Werner Herzog, of all people, making a sequel to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant? Why was he doing it with Nicolas Cage? For that matter, why was anyone doing it at all? I forget which of the other reviews I’ve read said it was an inherently odd choice to follow up; it’s not like there was a widely perceived desire for such a film (at least not in the way there evidently exists a desire for more and more Saw sequels), there was no marketplace niche needing to be filled. Really, the words “what the fuck?” were about the only response possible. I mean, good luck to Herzog, obviously, his career choices are his to make and by now he surely has no need to justify himself, but it hardly seemed like the sort of thing he’d do.
And then, of course, you got the additional bits of news, Ferrara cursing everyone involved in the production and wishing they would all die in the same motor accident, Herzog admitting he himself wasn’t happy with the idea of a remake, Herzog admitting he’d never seen the original (which, for the record, I haven’t either), the discovery that the film wasn’t really a sequel or remake at all, it just used the same broad plot idea (I don’t know about overseas, but the Australian DVD’s back cover blurb is very specific about it only being based on Ferrara’s film; I wonder if they had to say that as a concession to him or something, cos otherwise it seems an odd thing to do)… the whole thing was starting to look like one of those 70s horror films marketed as a sequel to an earlier film despite having absolutely nothing to do with said earlier film.
Most perplexing of all, though, were the notices it received upon its eventual release, many of them calling it one of the best films of 2009 (in Ebert’s case, also one of the best of the decade). I mean, by virtue of it being a Herzog film I knew I was going to see it anyway, but the sudden shift from it having sounded like a terrible idea in theory to an amazing one in practice only intrigued me further. I missed the one Sydney screening of it, so that meant DVD… so when I saw last week that it was available, I did something I fairly rarely do and plonked down $23 (hurray for it coming out just in time for JB HiFi’s 20% off sale!) for a new DVD release I haven’t rented or seen at the cinema first. (Obviously I have to do this all the time with older films that I can’t otherwise see here—most of which are usually well-regarded films I’m fairly sure I’ll like anyway—but for a new release I’d normally try before buying where possible.) And sat down on Monday night to watch it.
And I could kind of see where these glowing reviews were coming from, cos it actually is a really good film. And a lot of it really does come from Nic Cage, a man whose recent choices of film parts have generally been considered questionable at best (“Not the bees!”). He’s awesome here, perhaps because he’s got a character to play who gives him so much to work with. Terence McDonagh, the eponymous lieutenant, is, as another reviewer says, a trite character, the maverick cop who still gets results. But it’s the extent to which he goes beyond the confines of police procedure that make him stand out, fucked up as he is on both prescription and non-prescription drugs, and on his own sense of power and justification as a man with a gun and a badge. It’s excessive (e.g. calling a disabled old woman a cunt and accusing her of representing everything wrong with America today), yet somehow perfectly pitched, and the sort of thing that could go so terribly wrong; that it doesn’t shows that Cage must still have something going for him.
Equally, the film itself strays beyond the usual police procedural confines; there’s a crime to be solved, and it is, but it doesn’t provide the usual strength of narrative drive (that’s provided by Cage as we wonder exactly what the fuck will come next). Best of all, though, I like how Herzog undercuts the happy ending. I gather Ferrara couldn’t resist giving his lieutenant a redemptive character arc; Herzog, by comparison, builds up to a climax whose cheerfulness seems almost suspect (McDonagh finds there’s a line of bad cop behaviour even he won’t cross, for one thing) until he cruelly knocks the whole thing down.
So TBL:PoC:N’Awlins is great, BUT… I don’t know why I still can’t get 100% behind it. Maybe I’m still bothered by the idea of Herzog doing this kind of as a work for hire. To be sure, many Hollywood classics have been produced in exactly that way, and the end result is more than I think many initially expected, i.e. a great Euro-arthouse master slumming it in Hollywood for the money. Still, there’s something that remains conceptually off-putting about the whole film; ultimately, I suppose it is a story that anyone might’ve done. Cage makes McDonagh into a Herzog sort of extreme character, but it’s still hard to escape the feeling this didn’t originate with Herzog himself. Still, if anyone else had done it, it wouldn’t be the film we now have, and whatever my reservations, obviously it’s a must-see.