Who better to star in a Herzog film than Nicolas Cage? Werner Herzog, master of the eccentric, and Nicolas Cage, a truly fearless actor when pushed hard enough, have created an absurdist work of art. Not absurd. Absurdist. There isn’t a single scene in Bad Lieutenant that doesn’t teeter on the edge of being over-the-top. But somehow the film miraculously works.
Much has been made about the similarities between Herzog’s film and Abel Ferrara’s 1992, crime drama Bad Lieutenant starring Harvey Keitel. Cage and Keitel both play cops with a drug problem. Let’s move on.
Herzog’s film is set in The Big Easy, with Cage playing the delightfully evil, if not manically insane, Lieutenant Terence McDonagh. To say McDonagh has “issues” is to be very very kind. The dude skims dime bags of coke off a club-going couple, but not before hitting a crack pipe and banging the chick while her boyfriend watches. He pops Vicodin like candy and snorts coke like it’s nasal spray. He steals evidence, slaps around old women, gambles away money he doesn’t have, and so on. So what the hell is to like? Here’s the thing. Herzog, along with Cage, never take the film too seriously. In fact, Cage’s performance is filled such great, zany one-liners, that I may go as far as to call it the funniest performance of the year. How'd that happen?
Just watch him play McDonagh. The way his massive .44 caliber gun sits in the front of his belt, centimeters from slipping out. The way his voice inflection drops all over the place the more messed up he is. The way he laughs when introducing characters by their “street” names. Or how he delivers a seemingly cheesy line like “shoot him again, his soul is still dancing” with precise, frantic conviction. And there’s more. McDonagh gets downright serious when dealing with his hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend (Eva Mendes), and is troubled dad. So whether Cage plays McDonagh as a comic devil, or serious as Satan, he’s always believable. It’s a tour de force performance, easily Cage’s best since Adaptation.
The movie doesn’t really have a plot, it’s far more appealing as a character study. There are big-time drug dealers, low-life cops, and alcoholic family members to keep McDonagh going. (Yes that is Jennifer Coolidge, the MILF from the American Pie films, as McDonagh’s stepmother). But I was most impressed with how Herzog pulled off his Bad Lieutenant with such frenzied finesse. Herzog, who has never made a bad film, always manages to put his odd stamp on everything he does, without being overly obvious. There are a few scenes, shot with a camera-on-acid feel, where McDonagh is the only person in the room who sees creepy reptiles. What’s the point? I have no idea. But it’s sheer demented delight. This is Herzog at his absolute best. Oh yeah. A