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  • 18
  • Crime, Drama
  • 2009

The Bad Lieutenant

The Bad Lieutenant


Corrupt cop spends second half of film attempting to wriggle out of the mess he's made for himself during the first half, in an off-kilter character study from Werner Herzog


Salvador Dali reportedly once said "I don't do drugs. I am drugs." Nice try, Dali. If anyone merits that particular accolade, it's legendary director Werner Herzog - the man who moved a boat over mountains, ate his own shoe and quite seriously threatened to shoot absconding actor Klaus Kinski.

With this excellent neo-noir film, The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call - New Orleans, Herzog admits he "deleted quite a number of scenes where the protagonist takes drugs, simply because I personally dislike the culture of drugs." You see, if you're Werner Herzog, you have no need of drugs. Or of brevity in your film titles, although to be fair to Herzog, it seems that he would have preferred to make a movie called Port Of Call - New Orleans, and the studio would only give him money to do so if he let them put Bad Lieutenant in the title and pretended his version would have something to do with Abel Ferrara's 1992 film of the same name. But whatever you do, don't call it a remake.

Anyway, Herzog might have no use for drugs, but corrupt cop Terence McDonagh, the bad lieutenant of the ungainly title, certainly does - he snorts coke, smokes crack and pops whatever prescription meds he can lay his shaking hands on. Terence is played by Nicolas Cage, and Cage is not so much on form as he has stormed the battlements of Form, built his own rickety turret and declared Form an independent nation of which he himself is the crazy-eyed King, daring any other sucker to try to get up here and take Form back from its rightful ruler.

Much has been made by film critics of the fact that Terence initially turns to drugs for their analgesic properties, following a painful back injury in the film's first scene, incurred as he helps save a trapped prisoner in a flooded New Orleans jail. I'm not sure about this notion that here we had a good man, who performed a noble act which had unforeseen consequences that lead him down a path of evil. We don't know Terence prior to this incident; we assume he wasn't abusing drugs, but we have no clear indication that he was some sort of saint. This is besides the point in any case - Terence isn't a character offered up for our moral judgment, and discussions about when exactly he became a wrong 'un are kind of inapposite. They're invited in Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant, a film mired in guilt and religious shame, but Herzog seems more interested in man's place in the world as yet another animal competing for survival.

Herzog's Bad Lieutenant is also an awful lot more fun than Ferrara's. Scratch that, it's an awful lot more fun than most movies. The first half is somewhat slow burning, lulling you into half-believing you're watching a pretty ordinary police drama, albeit with a bent copper for a lead. But as the movie progresses, the madness and humour ratchets up to a level that will undoubtedly leave many nonplussed, even as others giggle helplessly at the sheer chutzpah of the whole enterprise. You may have heard that it features iguanas - and a dancing soul - but it would be a shame to spoil them for you here. See it, and relish them.

Safe to say, Cage and Herzog have created a superbly memorable lead character, and if the plot itself is curiously unmemorable, certain images will stay with you to the grave as Herzog achieves something of the jangling rollercoaster Terry Gilliam strove for in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, through a more subtle but more powerful use of hallucinations. If the studio gets its wish that Bad Lieutenant could turn into some sort of franchise, I would definitely sign up for another dose.

Werner Herzog on Bad Lieutenant
Nicolas Cage on Bad Lieutenant

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Shawn Hatosy, Val Kilmer, Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Jennifer Coolidge, Fairuza Balk, Xzibit
  • Director: Werner Herzog

In a nutshell

Natural brothers in arms Werner Herzog and Nicholas Cage partner to hilarious effect to create a meandering but supremely enjoyable dip into one man's queasy journey.

by Catherine Bray

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