(dir. Werner Herzog, 2009)
The Making Of documentary for Bad Lieutenant reveals three things of particular interest. Number One: Val Kilmer does a mean Werner Herzog impression. Number Two: A revealing dialogue with the man himself:
HERZOG: [on shooting in New Orleans] ‘We talk about a ‘beast’… The jungle is not a beast. The city is not a beast.’
DOCUMENTARIAN: ‘Man is the beast?’
HERZOG: ‘No, no. Don’t get philosophical.‘
This, I think, is key to understanding Bad Lieutenant. No, sorry, it’s the key to enjoying it. Jump on, and enjoy the ride.
What you won’t find in the Making Of is any explanation of (or apologies for) the observing iguanas of judgment or the break-dancing souls of the stiffs. And too right. If you wanted straight up cop clichés, you’d have watched Bad Boys II. Or Taggart. Depending on your mood. Bad Lieutenant however is not a film you watch depending on your mood, rather the other way round. The general (and increasing) weirdness has you struggling to make any sense of anything (particularly just, why?), but that’s kind of the point. It’s waiting for you to succumb, and when you do, the movie really takes off. And be under no illusions, this is a movie.
What surprises the most though isn’t the aforementioned, much talked about iguanas and dancing, but the just how low budget and independent this all feels. Take the jazz camerawork, gleefully leaping from composed crane and dolly shots whipped straight from a million cop movies you’ve seen before, to unashamedly handheld explorations. Not for kinetic action sequences or documentary imitating cinema verite, but just for the hell of it. And this attitude bleeds through the whole film like so much muddied water, clear improvisation zinging on both sides of the camera; leisurely editing, bizarrely phasered sound design, even the title. It’s always referred to as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, even though it was advertised without the subtitle, and then the opening titles themselves proudly reclaim the subtitle making it The Bad Lieutenant: POCNO. Wait, The Bad Lieutenant? Where did the ‘The’ come from? If you’re an amateur filmmaker worried about gloss and uniformity, worry not: Herzog’s flying the flag for us all.
No surprise then that it all feels very refreshing, it’s black humour cutting through the genre like a knife though alligator guts (yep). We must here mention how doubly refreshing it is to see Nicholas Cage getting his groove back. His face crunches and stretches it’s way through a host of peaks and troughs, mostly related to the evil and vice he has proudly submerged himself into. No Oscar winning resentment or revelation here; Cage has Left Las Vegas and hit a new low. It’s the little touches, really, like the way he chuckles every time he refers to the street name of drug pusher ‘G’, regardless of its context, or the way he slicks his hair back in the mirror before entering a crime scene, despite the fact he’s wearing a three day old suit; he doesn’t give a crap about what anyone thinks of him, he just likes the way his hair looks. Yes, it’s good to have you back Nic.
Also worth a mention is Val Kilmer, an actor whose lack of screentime I’m finding increasingly frustrating; not just in this film, but generally. Even without a strong character, great lines, or much to cling onto at all, he still manages to draw your attention in every scene he graces: unshowy, understated, awesome. Where’s the love, Hollywood?
Oh yeah, Number Three: Apparently, Werner Herzog has never done any drugs, ever.