It sounded like a disaster at green-light stage: Nicolas Cage, the loosest Hollywood cannon since Marlon Brando careened across the decks on a regular basis, cast in a remake/reboot of director Abel Ferrara’s 1992 post-grindhouse urban drama Bad Lieutenant that absolutely no one was crying out for, saddled with the unlikely/unwieldy title Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. To add an extra layer of WTF, famed German art-house titan Werner Herzog, on a modest career upswing thanks to the acclaimed doc Grizzly Man and the Christian Bale-starring Rescue Dawn, would direct. Herzog insisted that the film was not a remake. Regardless, word of the project seemed to mostly interest people who like to gawk at the cinematic equivalent of car accidents and Ferrara himself, who wished publicly that those behind the new film would “die in hell.”
They didn’t, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is out now on First Look DVD and Blu-ray. And it’s actually quite good, in its own peculiar way. The original Bad Lieutenant was, reductively speaking, an art film made by an exploitation director; PCNO reverses that formula. What the new film lacks in grime and sleaze and Catholic guilt it makes up for in idiosyncratic Herzogian verve.
PCNO sticks close to the outline of Ferrara’s film: Cage plays a police detective with a gambling problem and a drug jones who abuses the power of his badge to fuel his appetites when he’s not investigating a shocking crime. Here, Cage’s Terence McDonagh is a cop in post-Katrina New Orleans instead of New York, he has a hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes) instead of an unseen wife back in the suburbs, and the crime involves a family of African immigrants wiped out by a drug dealer instead of a raped nun. More significant differences are apparent in context and plotting. A back injury sustained while doing a good deed is blamed for hooking McDonagh on pain pills, sending him down the road to ruin; Herzog also introduces McDonagh’s father (Tom Bower), a former cop and fellow addict, as perhaps a little leavening. In other words, Herzog’s lieutenant wasn’t born bad. And while the original Bad Lieutenant could barely eke out a plot, PCNO assembles a doozy, an outlandish, ramshackle series of ploys and double-crosses that threatens to fall apart at any moment but somehow keeps things moving along.
Not that PCNO is anything like a conventional police drama. After all, iguanas show up in several scenes, seemingly unseen by anyone but the drug-addled McDonagh and the viewer, in a low-budget, totally Herzogian gloss on the hallucinated giant reptiles from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And Cage isn’t “good” so much as he’s fascinating to watch. The nest of hair perched on the back of his head is so wig-like that it doesn’t matter if it’s real, and he embodies McDonagh with a stiff, stilted posture, with one shoulder always higher than the other, and a hysterical cackle. More than Bad Lieutenant’s Harvey Keitel, Cage brings to mind a few of his own more interesting moments (Vampire’s Kiss, Leaving Las Vegas) as well as the long string of obsessive Herzog protagonists, not least Klaus Kinski’s haunted vampire from the director’s 1979 Nosferatu remake.
But McDonagh is, as they say, crazy like a fox. So is the movie, which earns major watchability points with a deep bench of straight-to-DVD all-stars in the secondary roles (Val Kilmer, rapper Xzibit, Brad Dourif, Vondie Curtis Hall, Fairuza Balk, Shawn Hatosy) and with the peculiar visual grammar (swooping crane shots of streets, plot-driving establishing shots of signs, lizard-cam hallucination footage) the director uses again and again, with hypnotic but effective results. Together Herzog and Cage pull off something that’s always slightly ridiculous and yet rewards being taken seriously.
If you’re looking for another new title for a freaky-deaky double feature, look no further than Hungarian filmmaker György Pálfi’s Taxidermia (E1 DVD). Based on three short stories by Lajos Parti Nagy, Pálfi’s film follows three generations of one family line: a filthy sad-sack soldier (Csaba Czene) slowly going sex-crazy at an isolated post, a competitive eater (Gergely Trócsányi) on the Hungarian state team who suffers indignities both professional and romantic, and a reedy, nerdy taxidermist who tends his now-enormous father and his enormous father’s enormous (like, Labrador-sized) cats. The cats are enormous, in part, because he feeds them nothing but butter. Oh, and the enormous father was born with a pig’s tail, perhaps because of the uncertain circumstances of his conception. And that’s just scratching the surface of the charmed strangeness imbued in every frame of Taxidermia.
“Surreal” is one of the most over/misused descriptors in the English language, but it is rarely so apt as applied here. Coming straight out of a film lineage that includes Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, Terry Gilliam, and David Lynch, Pálfi lives up to it and extends it, adding a polished and puckish visual style all his own; it’s hard to think of a recent film that makes a better use of CGI to reality-warping effect. And while often gross and disturbing, Taxidermia is also stuffed with bursts of humor (both rude and sly) and bits of genuine emotion. When someone in Pálfi’s world spills their guts, you feel it as well as get to watch it.