Two of cinema’s nuttiest, Cage and Herzog, team up in this brilliantly dark comedy.
When it was announced that Werner Herzog, a director who has always been the definition of original filmmaking, was to remake Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992)
quite a few eyebrows were raised. While Herzog has never shied away
from dark material he is always at his best with a wry smile painted on
his face. Ferrara’s original is one of the bleakest films you will ever
see, so where was the logic in Herzog tackling a film that was so far
removed from his modus operandi? In hindsight there was never any doubt that Herzog was going to take the material in his own direction, and even claims to have never seen the film upon whose title it shares.
As the floodwaters rise in New Orleans, thanks to Hurricane Katrina,
Lieutenant Terence McDonagh finds himself with a sudden attack of
consciousness and dives into a holding cell to rescue a trapped inmate.
Badly damaging his back, McDonagh becomes hooked on painkillers before
moving onto harder drugs. With a murder to solve, a hooker girlfriend to
protect, a witness to find and his betting debts spiralling out of
control McDonagh resorts to any means he can to dig himself out of his
What becomes apparent early on in Bad Lieutenant is it is designed to evoke a smirk rather than the original’s sense of self-loathing.
McDonagh is so morally corrupt that you find yourself routing for this
crazed anti-hero. As he descends deeper into drug induced madness so
Herzog unleashes his off the wall brand of filmmaking.
For the most part he sticks to what he knows best. His cinema verity
style, being influenced by his documentary films, allows us to be drawn
into McDonagh’s gradually declining mindset. This is furthered by
Herzog’s ability to make the humidity of New Orleans drip from the
screen as well as the characters within it. As the temperature rises and
the drugs take hold of McDonagh, Herzog allows his quirky side to enter
the fray with a bizarre interest in the reptiles of the surrounding
swamps. Alligator and iguana cams are difficult to explain in the
context of the film, but they seem to represent something within
McDonagh’s drug fuelled nightmare. Perhaps it signifies his cold-blooded
ways manifesting themselves to him. Irrelevant of what they mean, it is another method of Herzog’s madness.
Scripted by Finkelstein the film could easily fall into the realms of police procedural drama. Indeed Finkelstein is a veteran writer of such shows as LA Law and NYPD Blue but uses this to benefit rather than hinder the plot.
The story is always secondary to McDonagh’s plight but the characters
Finkelstein weaves into the piece are what allow Herzog to focus in on
Brad Dourif, famed for always playing the loon, gives a wide-eyed straight performance as McDonagh’s bookie. Eva Mendes,
normally asked to play the sultry femme fatal, plays Frankie with an
absent sense of underwhelmed shock to the film. It is a character that
should see Mendes break free from her normal type casting.
However, the film lives and dies by the titular Bad Lieutenant and
here the role feels tailor-made for Nicholas Cage. An actor that is
always interesting to watch, he is at his best when permitted to inject
his unique brand of eccentricity into a character, see Wild At Heart (1990) and Adaptation (2002).
As McDonagh he has the range to always remind you that his back is in
pain, making him move about with a Frankenstein’s monster like rigidity,
while mumbling due to his numbed state. But, while Cage’s ticks make
McDonagh a fascinating case study it is his ability to bring huge heart
to such a morally vacuous man. For every corrupt action McDonagh does,
Cage finds a way to make you like him. It’s partly the glazed smiles and the unbalanced walk but more importantly it’s the utter helplessness of his situation. You want to just give him a big hug, the problem is he might find a way to exploit you for his own benefit.
With and ending that is darkly ironic Bad Lieutenant is a film that
does everything right to paint such a wrong portrait. Cage is rarely
given the freedom to be this off the chain and it makes for the darkest
of comic performances. If this is what Herzog can do in the mainstream
pray that he is given a shot at a super hero movie. This isn’t so much Bad Lieutenant as brilliantly twisted.