Back in 1992, Abel Ferrara made a film called Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel. It’s something of a cult movie: dark and hallucinogenic, and with a stunning central performance from Keitel as a New York cop hooked on drugs and vice. Keitel’s lieutenant goes rapidly further and further off the rails but is redeemed when he gets involved in a brutal case involving a raped nun.
In 2009, Werner Herzog made another film called Bad Lieutenant. He claimed it wasn’t a remake but just a coincidence of title. His Bad Lieutenant is dark and hallucinogenic with a stunning central performance from Nicolas Cage as a New Orleans cop hooked on drugs and vice. Cage’s lieutenant goes rapidly further and further off the rails but has a chance of redemption when he gets involved in a brutal case involving a murdered immigrant family.
Both films include scenes where the central cop character uses his badge to intimidate minor lawbreakers into fulfilling his own twisted desires. Keitel gets two girls wanting to avoid a traffic ticket to mime sexual acts for him while he masturbates. Cage shakes down two club-goers for their drugs and then gets high in front of them. There’s more in common here than the title. What’s really important though isn’t whether Herzog’s right about what he’s made. What’s important is whether it’s any good. It is. In fact, it’s very good indeed.
Cage plays police Sergeant Terrence McDonagh. McDonagh is crippled with long term back pain (which Cage makes apparent in his every movement). He only manages to function through heavy doses of painkillers and cocaine stolen from the police evidence room. His only relief is visits to his girlfriend – a high-class hooker played sympathetically by Eva Mendes.
McDonagh is put in charge of investigating the execution style murder of an entire family. He takes it seriously, but his life’s coming apart. His contact in the evidence room refuses to supply more drugs. His gambling hits a losing streak and he’s got debt he can’t repay. His girlfriend’s in trouble with a client who’s got mob and political connections. The only witness to the murders doesn’t want to testify. His number two on the investigation, cop Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer on incredibly sleazy form), is venal and corrupt. Soon the investigation’s in trouble and so’s McDonagh.
Bad Lieutenant is film noir, but not as mere imitation of the great noir films of the past. New Orleans here isn’t a shadow-filled metropolis. The lighting is flat and bright and this gives the streets and interiors a documentary-style normality. That’s the only normality in the film though which is filled with reptilian imagery: a snake swimming through floodwaters; a dead alligator on a roadside; hallucinations of singing iguanas (yes, hallucinations of singing iguanas). Herzog’s New Orleans is a surreal dreamscape which McDonagh swims through becoming more and more crazed as he goes.
This is a film which revels in its own insanity. It’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Cage in the central role. He screams in fury as he levels his gun at old women in a nursing home. He walks into a police siege on his own and comes out grinning and with the suspect. His scenes with the suspected killer, ‘Big Fate’ (Xzibit), are manic and unhinged.
On the DVD extras, Herzog talks about “the bliss of evil” and that’s what he shows. Cage’s McDonagh is a monster but not a completely irredeemable one. His tenderness to his girlfriend and his fury at the murders are all real, but so is the temptation to be wicked.
As director and actor Herzog and Cage both have a long interest in crazy. Here they indulge that to the full and in the process Cage gives his best performance in years (and with a tremendous supporting cast). It’s twisted and black but the surprise for me was that it’s also very funny. This is a tremendous black comedy. Most remakes are tired and unoriginal. Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans is neither. It’s vivid, imaginative, hugely enjoyable and utterly itself. Cinema needs more iguanas.
The Bad Lieutenant DVD comes with a making-of documentary and cast and crew interviews (which are excerpts from the making-of documentary).