Abel Ferrara’s cult classic Bad Lieutenant (1992) might be the most wonderfully demented independent film of 1990s. The story of a New York cop, who descends into a nightmarish hell of compulsive gambling, sex, and nonstop drug abuse, Bad Lieutenant is most notable for Ferrara’s abject subject matter, religious symbolism, and stylistic excess. The script was co-written by Ferrara and Zoe Lund, who also appears in the film, and died seven years later (reportedly from a drug-fueled heart attack). Added to the mix is the film’s obsession with baseball player Darryl Strawberry, who would later wage his own public battles with substance abuse. The bravura lead performance of Harvey Keitel, however, turns out to be the defining factor in Bad Lieutenant. In the midst of a messy divorce at the time, Keitel somehow pushes the character of the Lieutenant so far over the edge that he transforms the film into something that feels more akin to psychodrama than fiction.
Bad Lieutenant begins with a scene of the Lieutenant taking his two sons to school after they apparently missed the bus because their aunt monopolized the bathroom. Their father berates them, “I’m the boss, not Aunt Wendy. When it’s your turn to use the bathroom, you tell Aunt Wendy to get the fuck out of the bathroom. What are you: men or mice? She’s hogging the bathroom. Call me – I’ll throw her the fuck out!” As soon as the police officer drops the kids off at school, he immediately snorts coke in his car. A visit to a crime scene becomes an occasion to gamble on the baseball playoffs. He then buys and smokes crack, becomes involved in a sexual threesome, shakes down two African-American hoods who have robbed a Korean grocery, and visits a girlfriend (Zoe Lund), with whom he freebases.
Bad Lieutenant is technically a crime film, but it sidesteps genre by being highly episodic. Other than a series of incidents in which the Lieutenant indulges in vices and abuses his power, the razor-thin plot centers on his escalating gambling debts and a heinous crime involving the rape of a nun in Spanish Harlem by two young thugs. Ferrara intercuts the rape with an image of Christ as he cries out in agony on the cross. When the Lieutenant learns that the Catholic Church is putting up a $50,000 reward, he responds cynically, “Leave it to the Catholic Church. Girls get raped every day. Now they’re gonna put up 50 Gs just because these chicks wear penguin suits.” As the Lieutenant investigates the crime – he wants the reward to pay off his mounting gambling losses – he peers at the naked body of the nun from a crack in the door of her hospital room and learns that she was sexually violated with a crucifix. The saintly nun, however, forgives the perpetrators and refuses to identify them.
If the graphic rape of the nun – we see her panties and habit being ripped off – is not shocking enough, as rain falls, the Lieutenant pulls over a car containing two young Jersey women, who’ve just visited a nightclub. When they can’t produce the license and registration, he forces one to expose her bare buttocks, and gets the driver to simulate oral sex as he masturbates – a scene that lasts for eight excruciating minutes. As he drives though the city and snorts more cocaine, the Lieutenant listens to the playoff game. After the Mets once again best the Dodgers, he becomes so enraged at losing another wager that he shoots out his car radio, puts on his siren, and screams expletives as he races through city traffic.
His bookie warns the Lieutenant at his daughter’s First Communion that the mob will blow up his house for not paying his debts, but the cop continues to double his bets in hopes of getting even. After the Mets win another game, the bookie tells him, “You think maybe because you’re a cop, he [the mobster] won’t kill you. You’re this close already to death.” His face bathed in red bar light, the Lieutenant acts as if baptism has immunized him against harm. He boasts, “I’ve been dodging bullets since I was fucking fourteen. No one could kill me. I’m blessed. I’m a fucking Catholic.”
After placing a bet on the final playoff game, the Lieutenant visits his junkie girlfriend who helps him to shoot up. As he nods off, she tells him: “Vampires are lucky. They can feed on others. We gotta eat away at ourselves . . . We gotta suck ourselves off. We gotta eat away at ourselves till there’s nothing left, but appetite.” Ferrara presents a Burroughs-like view of the world, in which human beings are the sum of their addictions.
The Lieutenant confronts the nun in the church as she’s praying. He offers to avenge what’s been done to her, but she questions his religious faith. In a drug-induced hallucination, he imagines a statue of Christ in the center aisle. He screams out, “What? You got something that you want to say to me? You fuck! You rat fucker! You rat fuck!” He rants about trying to do the right things, but laments the fact that he’s weak. He crawls down the aisle and kisses the bloodied feet of the statue. A neighborhood woman leads him to the two hoodlums afterward. He smokes crack with them in an abandoned building and threatens to shoot them, thus putting his conflict of religious faith to the ultimate test.
Because of its skewed vision of a truly lost soul battling his own demons, its conflation of the sacred and the profane, gutter dialogue, tortured hallucinations, and Keitel’s twisted performance, Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant might seem like one of the least likely independent films to be remade. Yet Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans proves to be less a remake of the earlier film than an extended series of quotations from it. Whereas Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is essentially a character study, Herzog’s film (from a screenplay by William Finkelstein) is a plot-driven crime caper set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Ferrara, who was not happy at the prospect of the new film, was quoted as saying, “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.”
The religious impulse that infuses the earlier film is missing entirely from Herzog’s secular version. The nameless cop of Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant has been replaced by Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), the son of a police officer (Tom Bower) who’s in the process of drinking himself to death. Ferrara’s police lieutenant had no backstory. We know nothing about him or how he came to be addicted to drugs and gambling, other than by being subjected to crime every day. Terence McDonagh, on the other hand, gets strung out on drugs as a result of a back injury he incurs while saving a prisoner named Chavez (Nick Gomez) at the film’s opening.
Terence McDonagh is a conflicted, schizoid character, but it’s not due to Catholicism or a crisis of faith, but to his dependence on drugs. Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant has almost no plot, whereas the new film has the kind of intricate plot with unexpected twists and turns we associate with the genre. McDonagh, as played by Cage, limps around in a baggy suit with his gun sticking prominently out of the front of his pants. If the symbolism isn’t already obvious, when his weapon gets taken away from him by two guys from the Public Integrity Bureau, he muses to his father, “A man without a gun; that’s not a man.”
The richly atmospheric Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans begins with a snake slithering through the murky waters of a flooded prison cell. McDonagh and his partner, Stevie (Val Kilmer), find the prisoner about to drown in the rising water. Stevie, who is far more callous than McDonagh, wants to let him die, but McDonagh, despite having on fancy French cotton underwear (an expensive gift from his girlfriend), plunges into the water to save Chavez. His bravery gets him promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
In Ferrara’s version, the rape of the nun provides the pretext of a plot. Here it’s an execution-style massacre of an African family by a local drug gang that drives the story, especially once McDonagh gets put in charge of the case by the police chief (Gary Grubbs). McDonagh’s injury causes him to take prescription painkillers, but he needs to supplement them with illegal ones. He steals hard drugs from the station’s property room and shakes down drug users to feed his own habit. McDonagh also has a drug-dependent girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), who works as a prostitute.
During the investigation of the crime scene, McDonagh finds a small notepad on which the murdered Senegalese child, Babacar, had written about his pet fish: “My friend is a fish. He live in my room. His fin is a cloud. He see me when I sleep.” As he stares at the colorful fish in a small cup of water, the sentimental cop is profoundly affected by the child’s heartfelt words. But there’s also a lot of pent-up rage in McDonagh, who explodes at the pharmacy when the black woman behind the counter keeps him waiting for his prescription while she talks on the phone.
McDonagh also routinely shakes down young couples as they leave a nightclub. After finding drugs, he smokes crack with one woman and forces her escort to watch him have sex with her. He later steals coke from one of Frankie’s tricks. McDonagh also terrorizes two elderly women by cutting off the oxygen of one of them. After threatening to shoot both of them, he shouts, “You’re the fucking reason this country is going down the drain.” It is in scenes like this that Cage reminds us of his equally deranged performance in Vampire’s Kiss (1989), where he swallowed a live cockroach. Indeed, part of the pleasure of watching this character is experiencing his wild and unpredictable mood swings, which veer from tender childhood reveries to psychotic outbursts.
As he pursues the investigation, McDonagh discovers clues to the murder, such as the fact that a fifteen-year-old boy delivery boy named Daryl (Denzel Whitaker) was in the house at the time of the murders, making him the sole witness. He also learns that three African-American drug dealers – Big Fate (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner), Midget (Lucius Baston), and another nicknamed “G” (Tim Bellow) – are responsible for the murders, but he spends the rest of the film trying to prove it, even if his means of doing this are circuitous and not exactly aboveboard.
Other subplots – Daryl’s disappearance, the recurring problems with alcohol of McDonagh’s father and wife Genevieve (Jennifer Coolidge), a feud with a well-connected developer’s son and another gang of criminals, McDonagh’s growing gambling debts, and his budding romance with Frankie – intersect with the main plot line. Yet it is Nicolas Cage’s wigged-out performance that proves to be the film’s most engaging aspect, as he channels Crispin Glover in River’s Edge (1987)and Jimmy Stewart to great comedic effect. McDonagh’s erratic behavior, propensity for drug-taking, maniacal laugh, and appropriation of black vernacular (Sup!) unnerves even the criminals. Big Fate tells McDonagh, “You’re my kind of motherfucking cop, man. You’re a crazy motherfucker!”
The film’s nuttiest moments involve McDonagh’s hallucinations when he’s high, notably the scene where an iguana sings “Release Me,” and another where McDonagh imagines a dead person’s soul still breakdancing and insists on shooting it. It’s not surprising that Herzog wants the film to be seen as a comedy. He told an interviewer, “On my knees, I hoped secretly, please, audience: laugh. Bad Lieutenant [Port of Call New Orleans] is a new step in film noir because it gets so debased and vile that it becomes hilarious.”
Note to Local Readers: I saw Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans at Sundance Cinemas last weekend. The film cries out to be seen on the big screen and with an audience, so I don’t recommend you wait for the DVD.