Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film Bad Lieutenant starring Harvey Keitel was the darkest possible tale of addiction and despair, loss of faith and self-destructive behaviour. While Werner Herzog’s film shares the same title (sort of – the full title for this version is The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans) and general theme, it is a very different beast indeed and so can barely even be termed a remake.
Terence McDonagh (Cage) is a New Orleans cop with a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants attitude. When Hurricane Katrina hits the city and a prisoner is about to drown in his cell, McDonagh jumps into the water to save him. In so doing, he damages his back, leading to a lopsided hunch and a life on prescription painkillers. Whether this is the starting point for an addiction to cocaine, crack, heroin and anything else he can get his hands on is unclear, but from this point forth, McDonagh uses and abuses his position as a lieutenant to get whatever he wants (and occasionally to help him do his job).
The plot, what there is of it, concerns the investigation of the murder of a Senegalese family, whose patriarch was dealing smack on the turf of local drug baron Big Fate (Pimp My Ride’s Xzibit). Everyone knows Big Fate is responsible but there’s no evidence and the only witness is a 15-year-old boy who keeps disappearing and doesn’t want to testify anyway. Meanwhile, McDonagh has a prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Mendes) and a gambling addiction to complicate matters further.
The result of this is a colossal mess of a life and something of a haphazard film, which is only fitting, given the circumstances. It’s certainly never dull and Nicolas Cage is absolutely sensational as the increasingly crazed policeman. In virtually every scene he does something funny, deranged or unexpected and his performance carries the film completely. Some of his actions are entirely reprehensible – this is a man whose moral compass has long since been lost. But because Herzog has recognised the ridiculousness of the situation, he plays it as a farce and it’s nigh on impossible not to laugh at a lot of what happens.
Where Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant showed constant signs of guilt, shame and anger at his inability to stay on the straight and narrow, Cage’s version shows nothing of the sort. So while it’s entertaining, McDonagh clearly isn’t even looking for redemption, which gives the niggling feeling that being utterly amoral is acceptable. By making it funny, Herzog is tacitly approving this behaviour and as such makes watching the film at times a very uncomfortable experience.
Beyond Cage, who is clearly the star of the show, the major roles are perhaps necessarily muted. Mendes isn’t given much to do and even Kilmer’s character of fellow cop Stevie is almost forgotten. However, there are a few excellent cameos including Jennifer Coolidge as McDonagh’s father’s pitiable drunk wife and Shea Whigham who is briefly hilarious as one of Frankie’s clients. A pair of iguanas and the breakdancing soul of a dead gangster add further surrealism to an occasionally trippy, morally questionable but frequently hilarious film.
EXTRAS ★★½ A 30-minute making-of featurette and interviews with Herzog, Cage, Mendes, Bower, cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger and screenwriter William Finkelstein.