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Re-Make/Re-Model: Bad Lieutenant (1992) vs. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Re-Make/Re-Model: Bad Lieutenant (1992) vs. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Remakes have been around nearly as long as Hollywood itself, and not always for the reasons or with the results you’d think. Spectrum Culture’s new feature Re-Make/Re-Model will examine the long history of cinematic remakes, the good movies turned great, the bad ideas turned worse and the weird ones turned boring.

Of all movies to remake, Bad Lieutenant has to be among the most unlikely. It was not a blockbuster when first released in 1992, nor was it meant to be. It received praise from many critics in its initial run and has become something of a cult film but doesn’t have the divisiveness that creates passionate support or hatred, like, say Irréversible (which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 10 years later). It’s a distinct, respectable film but not one that can easily be imagined in a different iteration. At the very least, it would be missing a crucial element: Harvey Keitel’s naked penis.

But when Werner Herzog is involved, films don’t make sense in the traditional manner. After all, dragging a steamboat over a South American mountain in order to make a film about dragging a steamboat over a South American mountain makes a lot of sense on paper. When you look at it any other way, it’s insanity. So it’s not terribly surprising that Herzog would involve himself in the remake of Abel Ferrara’s film, or at least less surprising than if literally any other director tried to do so. That noted, both directors would probably balk at the term “remake” being used in this context. By all reports, Ferrara was furious at the usage of the title Bad Lieutenant and had nothing to do with the concept of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Herzog, for his part, claimed to have never seen Ferrara’s film (or any of his films, or even know of him) and didn’t consider his own to be a remake.

There’s a lot to call bullshit on there. While Herzog very well may have never seen Bad Lieutenant, there’s no way he could have been utterly unfamiliar with the film itself. If anything, Port of Call New Orleans seems to be the result of Herzog seeing a secondhand review of the original or reading the back of a DVD case or even overhearing a conversation about it at a noisy party. The two films share a central concept: a corrupt, drug abusing police lieutenant slowly losing what grasp on self-control he has, while trying to rustle up cash for a series of escalating gambling debts. Besides that, there’s almost nothing. They’re tonally opposite. They’re not even in the same genre. But therein lies the fascination: how do two directors use the same core elements and come up with films that are so very different?

Despite the title, Ferrara’s film is not really a story about a police lieutenant. It’s not even about a single man, really. Bad Lieutenant is a brutal Christian allegory, albeit one far removed from the sweetness and clear morality of C.S. Lewis. The titular character (Keitel) doesn’t have a personality or past; tellingly, he’s only credited or referred to as “the Lieutenant.” He’s not a person, he’s an aggregate of sinful weakness. He gambles, he smokes crack, he cheats on his wife (who’s even more of a non-entity), he shoots heroin and he shoots out the radio in his car. He basically gives into every whim that occurs to him. When a nun is gang raped, and he’s put in charge of the investigation, he initially shows no reaction, despite professing to be a Catholic (or a human being, for that matter). But when he discovers that the nun in question has already forgiven her attackers and refuses to identify them, he begins to fall apart. He questions himself; he questions the concept of forgiveness itself, and how it can possibly be given to such degenerates. And despite the multitude of sins that shown in the film, Bad Lieutenant is about forgiveness. More specifically, it’s about the totality of Christian forgiveness and how awful and awesome that concept is.

Herzog’s film, on the other hand, is absolutely a cop movie. But it’s a cop movie skewed through his unique weirdness and contempt for the genre, and bolstered by the ineffable lunacy of Nicolas Cage. Port of Call New Orleans has a plot in a way that Bad Lieutenant doesn’t really; the latter film is really just an excuse for its protagonist to sink into himself in desperation for redemption, but the former has a structure, obstacles, victories and even a climax. This bad lieutenant has a name and an origin of sorts: he’s Terence McDonagh (Cage), a New Orleans police sergeant promoted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina after saving the life of an imprisoned man and injuring himself in the process, resulting in a painkiller addiction. And just as marijuana leads to murder and madness, McDonagh’s Vicodin addiction leads him to crack, stealing drugs and money from police evidence, shaking down clubbers for sexual favors and even being rude to Val Kilmer. Port of Call New Orleans has a complex plot compared to its predecessor, involving the murders of undocumented immigrants, gambling debts, McDonagh’s prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) and a bizarre, borderline fantastical ending in a giant aquarium. But at the end of the day, it’s still a cop movie, with our protagonist trying to outwit his enemies (his creditors, in this case), hunt down witnesses (largely to silence them) and play outside the rules (for drugs).

Both of these movies are, at least in concept, very similar. They both feature the same kind of character, both played by fantastic character actors working at the their fullest and freakiest. Neither are subtle movies. Bad Lieutenant has scene after scene of sobbing and screaming, not to mention a naked Keitel stretching his arms out, Christ-like. Also, Jesus shows up several times to scream while being crucified. Port of Call New Orleans has break-dancing ghosts, Cage stuffing a ridiculously huge gun in his trousers and numerous perspectives from what can only be called an Iguana-Cam. Both movies offer a kind of redemption to their protagonists, but leave it purposefully vague as to what that means. And yet, side by side, the two films also seem to be from worlds of different intent. Although it’s a stretch to really call one a remake of the other, Port of Call New Orleans is a fascinating experiment in repurposing ideas for a completely different result. Ferrara may not like it and Herzog may pretend not to care, but the two films are linked, not by plot or continuity, but by simple ideas taken in opposite directions.

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