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TAKING THE B-MOVIE TO NEW HEIGHTS : Partners in fugitive filmmaking, Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog worked 'blissfully' on 'Bad Lieutenant.'

November 15, 2009|Chris Lee

In "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," Nicolas Cage portrays a cop of unwavering commitment: He never lets his duty to protect and serve stand in the way of a hard-core drug binge.

As a homicide detective policing the Big Easy's toughest precincts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he snorts cocaine at crime scenes, blows marijuana smoke in the face of a suspected perp and whips out his "lucky crack pipe" to the amazement of a local drug kingpin. Amped up, antic and crackling with chemical intensity, the performance moved movie critic Roger Ebert to observe: "Cage is as good as anyone since Klaus Kinski at portraying a man whose head is exploding."

Cage's tweaker technique was so realistic, it caused the movie's director, Werner Herzog -- who worked with Kinski on five films -- to call into question what the Oscar winner was really putting up his nose.

"We had prop cocaine. Nicolas would sniff it, and I would ask him to shift positions," Herzog recently recalled. "From the moment I would ask him to move, he would be acting erratic. All of a sudden, I had the feeling: For God's sake, has he taken cocaine?"

Nursing a martini at the Polo Lounge, just days after his father, August Coppola, had passed away of a heart attack at age 75, Cage darkened at the memory of Herzog's on-set interrogation. "I would be psyching myself up, using my imagination to believe I was really blasted on coke," Cage said. "I take this little vial of saccharine-type stuff, and I would snort it and try to build that fourth wall around myself, get all agitated so I could believe I was this crazy cop who was high. And Werner would say to me, 'Nicolas, what is in that vial?' I'd be like, 'You've got to be kidding!' "

Indeed, Cage and Herzog are odd movie-making confreres. But their unique chemistry is what elevates "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" above its genre niche. Almost impossible to classify, the film is a glorious mess: part "CSI"-style police procedural, part over-the-top B-movie and part surrealist character study in flamboyant dissolution. "Bad Lieutenant" was a hit with critics at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals and boasts a 92% "freshness" rating from rottentomatoes.com.

Still, for all its sleazy, loony brilliance, doubts about the film's ability to connect with a mainstream audience linger. Online canards at one point had the movie heading straight to video. But intrepid moviegoers will be relieved to hear that "Bad Lieutenant" arrives in theaters in Los Angeles through the micro-distributor First Look on Friday.

Just don't mistake it for a remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 "Bad Lieutenant" -- or even a "re-imagining" of that critically hailed crime drama, as the producers of "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" have termed the project. (Which arrives, not coincidentally, at a cultural moment when Hollywood has become obsessed with franchises, "pre-awareness" and branding.) As Herzog points out, the films bear little relation to each other outside their depictions of drug- and sex-crazed police rogues who flex the power of their badges in highly questionable ways.

"It's not a 're' anything," the director said. "I have not imagined or seen the other film. When I read the script, I had no idea Abel Ferrara's film existed."

Not a remake

As befits the movie's mongrel pedigree, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" started inauspiciously. Would-be film financiers Gabe and Alan Polsky, untested in Hollywood and looking to break into the business with their first film, approached veteran independent film producer Edward Pressman about remaking a property Pressman owns, "Bad Lieutenant."

Pressman admits he was initially "dubious" but couldn't identify any downsides to giving the Polskys a chance. "I was not thinking about a sequel. I probably wouldn't have done it," Pressman said. "But I had these fellows who were willing to pay for the financing. It was a long shot."

The producers' first choice for director was Ferrara. Negotiations with him broke down, however, when the outspoken Bronx native refused to work with the screenplay written for the project by William M. Finkelstein, a journeyman television writer-producer of such series as "Law & Order," "NYPD Blue" and "Brooklyn South."

Gabe Polsky reset his sites on Herzog, 67, a legendary international film figure variously regarded as a mad man and a visionary.

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