Film producer Edward R. Pressman puts together some pretty amazing films. In the 90s alone he had Homocide, Two Girls and a Guy, Hoffa, Reversal of Fortune and The Crow. In the oughts, he had American Psycho, Harvard Man, Undertow and The Cooler. In the 80s he had Oliver Stone. Anyway, I guess I’m just so fond of many of his films, and a lot of them I’m fond of specifically because I love the originality and daringness of them, so seeing that he wanted to remake one of his films that was near perfect – irritates me to no extent.
Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who can be hit or miss. Usually hit. Sometimes he puts together a story like Bad Lieutenant (Ms .45 or King of New York) where he just finds his focus and rings it dry, and sometimes that focus never becomes deeply, disturbingly clear (like New Rose Hotel). Bad Lieutenant was the kind of film in the early 90s that was like shock treatment to cinema. It was pure, raw, eviscerating, unflinching, beautiful and filthy all in one. Harvey Keitel plays amazingly, the emotionally unstable, severely addicted and bitterly human titular character. Like I said, near perfect.
Now, it probably didn’t get much theater-life as a result of its NC-17 rating, a rating as ridiculous as ever, considering the ungodly acts of violence, drug use and sex that prime time crime shows now think is necessary to keep their viewers. Have you ever wondered how in the world Law and Order SVU gets away with half of the content they deal with at nine o’clock at night? I’d wager Ferrara himself would shudder. I digress.
Werner Herzog, another amazing (and sometimes not-so-amazing) filmmaker comes along and remakes Ferrara’s film Bad Lieutenant. So the first part that irked me “bad” was the new subtitle. No longer is it Bad Lieutenant, now it’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans. What? Why? That was the first thing I said, then I was like, “And how could Pressman let this happen!?” Yes, I distinctly recall sitting in front of Apple’s trailers website and yelling those very words at the screen. Was it contractual? As maybe part of the deal for shooting in New Orleans after Katrina? That I could understand, but anything else is just not an acceptable reason. In fact, there hasn’t been an acceptable reason to subtitle a film since like 1982 or unless it’s a documentary. I digress, again.
So first the title is bastardized, then the whole film I come to find out too! Well, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it until now (as you may notice from my blog, even though I have a lifelong plan to watch every film in existence, I’m always a little behind. Theaters are too noisy these days, plus I have my own.)
In the opening minutes to the film, the lieutenant (here played uncomfortably by Nicolas Cage) displays immediate heroic traits and enables the audience to sympathize for him throughout the rest of the film. We even find out in the next scene that he’s now plagued with a painful ailment as a result of his kindness. This is a terrible change to the original film. The whole beautiful point of Ferrara’s film is that the lieutenant has no immediate redeemable traits; we’re led to believe he is just a horrible man and we grow to despise him before we witness the raw realization that he has of his own downfall. Some goodness will come out of him in the later scenes, but it’s never overwrought like Herzog’s.
Now, agreed, Herzog does 180 on us at the end and leave it with a cold closing scene that is in direct contrast to what we’ve been made to feel for him, but this is unnecessary and to be expected in a modern film – always there’s a twist – but it’s vague here and doesn’t reflect the meaning behind the original version. The beauty of the 1992 version is that his self-destructive nature is heightened by the disturbing case that he is working on; he’s affected by it. Nicolas Cage’s lieutenant could care less about dead children on his turf, he’s heartless. I even question what he felt was in it for him to risk his silk underwear in the opening scenes of the film, in order to save a trapped prisoner in a quickly flooding New Orleans. Maybe he new it was a promotion.
Keitel knows how to feel this character out. Cage doesn’t. Cage’s vocal tone and accent even begins to morph throughout his scenes. I just don’t think he cared about this one at all. What Herzog is sorely lacking here is his muse: Kinski. Klaus Kinski in the role of the lieutenant would have been quite something to witness on film. Too bad we’ll have to just stick with Woyzeck.
Ferrara knows how to use New York City to his advantage. Herzog is a foreigner to New Orleans. It’s void of any color; lifeless even in the wake of the floods. Herzog is no stranger to making great films about foreign lands and the people who inhabit them (Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde), and he appears to be employing some of that in this film too with his Senegalese drug dealers.
It’s a shame this film was remade, when it should have been apparent to the producers that it was perfect in its place in contemporary film history. If they wanted to cash in on it, couldn’t they just have waited two years and created a nice, deluxe edition Blu-ray boxset for the tenth anniversary of the film? Or give it the Criterion treatment. Everyone is aware that Hollywood is clearly hard-up for anything original anymore, that’s why every summer there is at least three or four remakes of films that should be preserved as the beautiful shining relics that they are, instead of being bastardized by filmmakers who can’t come up with their own ideas. I think what bothers me the most is that I’ve always regarded Herzog as a genius, a savant in his film concepts and style, so the fact that he needs to remake something is just sad and a clear sign of the times.