On paper, Werner Herzog’s most recent dramatic movie is a cop’s story, told in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In execution, it’s a loopy, mad ride, that starts off and rarely slows for you to catch up, comprehend or rationalize what you have just seen.
As the movie opens, the flood waters of Katrina are rising. Two cops, Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage,) and Stevie Pruit, (Val Kilmer) are the last two in the station. As they go through a co-worker’s locker they hear noises from the holding cells. One man is still in there. He’s holding on for dear life, with the water already up to his neck. McDonagh and Pruit debate whether he’s worth saving. McDonagh decides the man is, and dives in. We cut to six months later. McDonagh apparently injured his back in the rescue attempt and he will suffer pain for the rest of his life. His doctor prescribes pain medication. But that is not enough and soon McDonagh begins self-prescribing medicine. He’s investigating the killing of a family that appears to be drug related. He starts following Big Fate, (rapper Xzibit) the main dealer in New Orleans. Meanwhile, McDonagh’s call girl girlfriend, (played by Eva Mendes) is being roughed up by a client. McDonagh shows up, pockets the man’s cash, and sends him on his way, ordering him to treat women nicer. Oh, and McDonagh is also a gambler, constantly losing money on football games and in debt to his bookie.
Herzog is not one to present things in a traditional manner, and “Bad Lieutenant” is no exception. While the story takes cues from noir films like Jules Dassin’s “The Naked City,” and “Night and the City,” Herzog adds his own twist to the proceedings. McDonagh sometimes hallucinates and we see it. From two iguanas sitting on a desk during a stake-out, to the soul of a dead body break dancing moments after being shot, Herzog offers a look at police work that you haven’t seen before. If you’re familiar with Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” you can assume that there will be more cops smoking crack and having sex with girls in exchange for not charging them with possession. However, what sells all of this lunacy is the performance of Nicolas Cage.
Cage shines in this movie in a way that he hasn’t in a long, long time. If you missed the Nicolas Cage from “Rasing Arizona,” and “Adaptation,” and “Wild at Heart,” he’s back. Gone is the Cage from such forgettable movies as “Con Air,” “Snake Eyes,” and “National Treasure.” The surrounding cast, (Mendes, Xzibit, Kilmer, etc.,) can only hold on for dear life as Cage takes McDonagh to new levels of performance. The movie also features solid yet brief performances from Jennifer Coolidge, Michael Shannon and Vondie Curtis Hall.
However, it all becomes a little overwhelming and Herzog seems to almost be having too much fun and not paying attention to the clock. At two hours, “Bad Lieutenant” seems to wear out it’s welcome. Lunacy of this type best comes in short bursts. It also will play best late at night where you’ll wake up the next morning and wonder if you actually saw what you thought you saw.
As we left the theater, I turned to my friend and said, “I don’t know what we just saw.” Even though it’s over-long and, at some points flags enough to loose your attention, you have to give Werner Herzog credit for not making another by-the-numbers cop movie. -Sam