Bad Lieutenant (I shall stop calling it by its full title) is wonderfully bonkers, deliriously barmy, utterly mental and stupidly entertaining. It shouldn’t be, but the combination of the fantastic over-the-top performance from Nicolas Cage as the titular policeman and the crazy sensibility that Werner Herzog creates for the film to inhabit creates a unique experience that allows for the madness and encourages you to go along with it.
The story is relatively straightforward: Cage is Terence McDonagh, a cop with a back injury, an addiction to painkillers and other less legal drugs (acquired from the evidence room), a prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes, who obviously enjoyed so much being Cage’s love interest in Ghost Rider that she’s back for seconds), alcoholic parents, and a murder case where six illegal immigrants were executed in a drug-related crime. He’s also in debt to his bookie, and he’s angered some powerful people when he roughed up a non-paying customer of his girlfriend. To try to work things out, he gets in with the gangster he’s investigating, Big Fate.
Where things are not so conventional is how the story is told. Cage’s performance is of the sort of full-on roles from his early days, his voice doing strange things dependent on the level of drug intake. The scene where the gangsters shoot some guys who after him, and he shouts, ‘Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!’ as he laughs hysterically is hilarious. The other aspect is the way in which Herzog shoots the film. In the soul-shooting scene, we actually see the ghost of the dead man breakdancing. Just because. Also, there is a scene where we watch Cage and other officers (including an underused Val Kilmer – hearing him called Cage ‘good po-lice’, as if we were in The Wire, was worth it alone) on stakeout from the point of view of two lizards in the room with them (who may or may not be a figment of Cage’s imagination). Why? Just because. Those are two extreme examples; it’s the vibe he conjures up that allows you to go along with the craziness and enjoy it. The denouement of the investigations is so unbelievable that any other film would ridiculously convenient, but here it just works because of the rest of the movie. It shouldn’t work but it does.
The earlier incarnation of this film – the Harvey Keitel-starring and Abel Ferrera-directed version – was a tough watch, with a raw performance from Keitel, and is a strange inspiration for this version. However, a crazy Nic Cage and a bizarre melding of arthouse and mainstream from Herzog makes for an insanely entertaining and entertainingly insane police drama.