Bad Lieutenant, dir. Werner Herzog

Wow, they decided to do a Hollywood re-make of Abel Ferrara’s classic Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage, the worst actor in the world, in the Harvey Keitel role! – That sounds like combining the best of commercial and artistic suicide. – But what’s that? Werner Herzog is directing it? Well, I suppose it might be ok, then.

I watched the two versions of Bad Lieutenant back to back. I’ve seen the Abel Ferrara one a few times before, and it never fails to engross and fascinate. I don’t even know where to start with discussing it. – The Acting? Whatever you think about his strange whale-song-like crying, Harvey Keitel is extraordinary in it. But, there’s a scene where Harvey Keitel wakes up on a sofa from a coke-induced stupor, and his two young children are in the room: and the children’s response to him is just so realistic, you’re left wondering how it was set up. – The Plot? It’s never ceases to amuse me that, though ostensibly about the investigation of the rape of a nun, the main plot concerns the increasingly large bets Keitel is making on a baseball game which is continuously going-on, as it were, off-camera. A wonderful film, although – it’s true – not one I’d necessarily recommend to anybody.

And Herzog’s film, how does it compare? – Well, Nicolas Cage is rubbish of course – but you knew that already. His attempts in the direction of Keitel are laughable; he can’t do menace at all (you can compare Christopher Walken’s psychotic edge in another Abel Ferrara film I watched this week, King of New York, if you wanted some really threatening acting) nor, indeed, any emotion. He’s injured his back, and walks with a slight lowering of the left shoulder – that’s as far as his acting goes.

And what of the plot? Is this a slow cycle of corruption, degeneracy and despair leading to its ultimate fulfillment, as in Ferrara’s film. No, of course not. This is Hollywood. This is a bit of corruption, degeneracy and – well, very little despair – leading to a bit of rehab and a happy ending. A happy ending, I tell you! For The Bad Lieutenant? – You feel about as bad about it as about The Magnificent Ambersons. – And the plot? Oh no, it’s actually really concerned about this multiple homicide; and the baseball match going on in the background, it’s now just a baseball match going on in the background (well, it’s an American football match, actually).

Are there any similarities between the two films? – Well, the main characters take a lot of drugs in both films. Cage is still something of a corrupt cop, though one feels not in the same category as Keitel – or, indeed, with the same degree of realism (everything is corrupt in Ferrara’s version, nothing is sacred or of value). – And, of course, there’s that one scene where Keitel stops the two girls in the car (which people seem to remember, but which, in my opinion, is one of the least interesting in the film); which is repeated in Herzog’s film with even less of an edge.

Well, and is there anything good about the new version? Yeah, the bit with the iguanas. Now that’s actually worth seeing. – And here it is on YouTube, for your delectation. (I assure you, if all the film was like this, I’d have thought it was great; but it’s not).


2 thoughts on “Bad Lieutenant, dir. Werner Herzog

  1. It’s a strange film in so many ways. Why remake the Ferrara version? Why deny it is a remake? Why the casting? Why the iguana-cam?

    It doesn’t compare to the original, but I think that’s possibly the wrong comparison anyway. It has its own somewhat crazy integrity. The scenes with the grandma in the home, for example. And the dance at the end.

    I expected it to be terrible – but in a different way, so it kind of won me over.

  2. It’s true, Herzog claimed he’d never heard of Ferrara, or presumably ever seen the original – and that’s something I find eminently believable. His film has all the hallmarks of a lack of acquaintance. I very much had the impression that Herzog filmed this for the money and didn’t really give a damn about it.

    The iguana-cam fits in with this thesis nicely. The shot from the point of the alligator, where you sit wondering why the shot and why such a bad fake alligator – until the shot pans out a bit and the alligator runs off and you realise that it isn’t fake after all.

    I watched another low-budget film last night in which Keitel plays a corrupt New York cop, this time from 1983, called Corrupt (aka Cop-Killer), by another Italian-sounding director (Roberto Faenza) – and even stranger, starring John Lydon (yes, that John Lydon) as a weirdo stalker-type. Actually quite good.

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