As Terence McDonagh, the title character of Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, Nicolas Cage is a cop with chronic back pain, a penchant for gambling and a serious drug habit who drawls out his lines like Jimmy Stewart with a mouth full of marbles. His bad back provides the kernel of a justification for his drug addiction, and Cage holds his back as stiffly as a debutante with a book on her head, never turning his head or bending at the waist. Visiting a crime scene early in the film, he grimaces, glowers, and extends one foot out in front of him while bending the other knee in order to get low enough to the ground to lift the cloth covering a murder victim. Even accepting a promotion, his shoulders graze his ears.
McDonagh wears an ill-fitting beige suit that hangs on his frame like it would on a straight-backed chair, his stiff shoulder blades jutting out at the corners. He also knows how to make an entrance: tow-away zones, sidewalks, and even front lawns mean nothing to him, as he parks his unmarked cop car with brazen entitlement. Yet despite his alternating states of pain-wracked lows and chemically induced highs, Cage also imbues McDonagh with an irrepressible natural exuberance. Needlessly volunteering to go alone into a suspect’s house while a small army of cops waits confusedly outside, he sneaks in through a neighbour’s yard and through the back door, catching his man, gun drawn, peering through his own front window. “I love it. I just love it,” Cage enthuses with palpable satisfaction and pride at his high-stakes game of hide-and-seek—which he promptly celebrates by inviting his catch to join him in a snort of blow.
Though understandably beholden to Cage’s one-man show, Herzog manages to work in his own inimitable personality, pacing and framing his unlikely material with confidence, refreshingly little ego, and an occasional dash of surrealism. He also, naturally, makes room for the fauna that fascinate him: in the bedroom of an eight-year-old murder victim, McDonagh discovers an exotic fish in a cup accompanied by the boy’s words—perhaps his own epitaph—on lined notebook paper. “My friend is a fish/He live in my room/His fin is a cloud/He see me when I sleep,” it reads, and Herzog evokes its naïve beauty again in his aquarium-set finale. Other friends from the animal kingdom making cameo appearances include a sloe-eyed golden Labrador, crocodiles, and the (perhaps imaginary) reptiles that occasionally haunt the periphery of McDonagh’s consciousness and yield the immortal line: “What are these iguanas doing on my coffee table?”
While the Herzog-Cage duet of madness is the film’s chief selling point, The Bad Lieutenant also features a nimble and game supporting cast: Eva Mendes as McDonagh’s call-girl love, Frankie Donnenfeld; rapper Xzibit as local drug kingpin Big Fate; Irma P. Hall once again working her tough granny routine; Tom Bower as McDonagh’s recovering alcoholic father and Jennifer Coolidge as his still-boozing stepmom; a dialed-down Michael Shannon as McDonagh’s property room drug connection, and a dialed-up Brad Dourif as McDonagh’s bookie. Also notable are Shea Whigham as a rich, brutal client of Frankie’s, making a memorable exit through a hotel room door by backing up his threats with a chorus of “whoa’s” and “oh yeah’s”; and an underused Val Kilmer as McDonagh’s partner, whose relative level-headedness is turned inside out near the film’s conclusion.
There are few points of moral orientation in the film’s world, and Herzog relishes the chance to demonstrate every character’s respective baseness. “It’s people like you that are wrong with America,” McDonagh berates a wheelchair-bound septuagenarian while cutting off her oxygen supply in an attempt to elicit information—and while this is an obvious laugh line, McDonagh nonetheless evinces the pathos of a frustrated idealist who must confront cruelty and indifference at every turn, from indifferent pharmacy attendants to predatory criminals. McDonagh relishes his damnation as the only appropriate response to a world gone to hell. Amorality trumps virtue in this helter skelter world, where the Bad Lieutenant snorts coke, shakes down dealers, and fucks chicks in short skirts and vertiginous heels—even on the street, even in front of their boyfriends, and even while firing his government-issued gun into the air. And yet McDonagh retains his apocalyptic morality even in the depths of his most egregious transgressions: having entered into a Faustian bargain with Big Fate, he maniacally brandishes his piece in a car filled with trigger-ready gunmen and crows, exultantly and self-mockingly, “I’ll kill all of you. . . ‘Til the break of dawn!”
The Bad Lieutenant derives its title and the basic conception of its central character from Abel Ferrara’s fevered 1992 sin-and-redemption fable. Ferrara was typically unrestrained in his views when asked how he felt about Herzog and Edward R. Pressman (who produced both this version and the original) adapting his work: “I wish those people die in hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up,” he reportedly told The Guardian in Cannes 2008. “I don’t feel like doing an homage to Abel Ferrara because I don’t know what he did—I’ve never seen a film by him,” Herzog calmly retorted in Defamer. “I have no idea who he is. Is he Italian? Is he French? Who is he?” (He later offered an olive branch in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter: “I have a feeling that if we met and talked—over a bottle of whiskey, I should add—I think we could straighten everything out.”)
While Herzog’s black comedy differs markedly from Ferrara’s tortured exploration of Catholic guilt, they share a comparable view of their respective title characters’ moral balance. Welcoming damnation with open arms, both McDonagh and Harvey Keitel’s nameless sinner nevertheless seem to be trying to prick the dormant consciences that have been dulled and brutalized by the grimness and violence of their desolate urban landscapes, whether post-Katrina New Orleans or pre-Giuliani Manhattan. In these turgid environments, bad lieutenants thrive. Yet Herzog, a lapsed rather than tortured Catholic, sees this less as personal failing than general societal malaise, and replaces Ferrara’s beckoning heaven and hellfire with a kind of noble resignation to the inevitability of sin in an irretrievably lost world. When asked, “Are you all right?” McDonagh answers best: “Sometimes I have bad days.”