Contains mild spoilers...
Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is a joke. And I don’t mean that necessarily in a bad way. I mean, that’s the only way to explain it. It’s not a comedy – not exactly – but it’s Herzog’s joke at the expense of Hollywood. It must be.
Herzog, of course, is mad. Not mad in the same way that Lars von Trier is mad – not bad mad. He’s just a wild and crazy guy who rails against Bonanza and eats shoes. And now he’s remade one of the most disturbing films of the nineties as a Hollywood pisstake.
Unsurprisingly, Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant has very little to do with Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. It has a corrupt, drug-addled cop at the centre of it, but that aside, it's more like a wildly distorted echo than a direct remake.
Ferrara’s film is genuinely shocking – still shocking, almost 20 years on. In it a nun is raped by two men. They also use a crucifix. Harvey Keitel’s lieutenant meanwhile is genuinely disturbed. Aside from the drugs, the sex and the gambling, the cursing of Christ and the standing around naked whilst whining like a wounded dog, there is also the infamous masturbation scene, which brings a whole new meaning to the term 'carjacking'. The man is a moral train-wreck and the film as a whole is uncomfortable and difficult.
Herzog’s film, by comparison, has more in common with a made-for-TV film, piling cliché upon cliché, plot-hole upon nonsense, and topping it all off with a caricature of a happy ending.
The drugs in Ferrara’s film are grimy and hideous. The script was written by Ferrara and Zoe Lund, who died of an overdose in 1999. The shooting-up scene is as realistic as any you’ll see and lasts forever.
The drugs in Herzog’s film are silly. When Nicholas Cage smokes crack he tends to turn into a buffoon, laughing hysterically, overacting enormously.
Keitel’s lieutenant takes drugs because he is a moral latrine.
Cage’s lieutenant takes drugs because he has a bad back.
Keitel’s lieutenant hallucinates a bloodied, freshly-crucified Christ.
Cage’s lieutenant hallucinates singing iguanas.
The one scene in which Cage’s bad lieutenant gets anywhere close to the badness of Harvey Keitel’s bad lieutenant is when he shoves a gun in a sick old lady’s face, cuts off her oxygen supply and calls her a ‘selfish cunt’. But even that got big laughs at the screening I was at. And rightly so. It was played for laughs. In fact, the tone is set at the beginning of that same scene when Cage picks up a giant teddy bear and throws it on the floor. Yes, sir, that’s how bad he is.
Ferrara’s film ends with Keitel smoking crack with the nun-rapists, giving them a box of money and putting them on the a bus out of town. The nun they raped forgave them and so must he. Then he’s gunned down for his gambling debts.
Herzog’s film ends when each of Cage's three serious problems is resolved in very quick succession, literally one after the other while he sits at his desk. Then the very last scene of the film has Cage looking at the camera and laughing. I imagine Herzog’s direction was: ‘OK, keep staring into the movie camera and then slowly, you realise – as the audience must realise – that the whole film has been an elaborate joke. You start to laugh. That’s it. Keep laughing! It’s ludicrous. Hollywood is ludicrous! With this film I can finally destroy it!’
Unfortunately, no one else seems to have realised it’s a joke and it actually garnered good straight reviews on its US release.
Herzog must be depressed. Hollywood's in worse shape than he thought. He's probably throwing himself into a cactus again as we speak.
There is of course the possibility that I have got entirely the wrong end of the stick and the film is not actually a joke at all. In which case, um... it's bollocks.
The iguanas are fun though.