Werner Herzog possesses an understandable, if somewhat inaccurate, reputation as a director of compelling documentaries that focus on stories that are told outside of the eye of the mainstream and often even the fringe. 2005’s Grizzly Man covered the bizarre, troubled life and grim end of Timothy Treadwell, an activist with a wildlife obsession that became a dance with death when he chose to make the bear populations of Alaksa his charge and his fixation. Meanwhile, 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly covers the amazing story of Dieter Dengler, a German-born pilot for the US Navy whose plane was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War; he endured captivity for almost six months before escaping with other prisoners (none of whom, save for one, was heard from ever again).
Perhaps the emphasis on his documentarian side stems from how unique that makes him among his peers, few of whom ever dabble in such informational endeavors. But documentaries aren’t all that Herzog has offered to the film world, and 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans should serve as a reminder to all of his abilities in the realm of fiction and his skill with plot and narrative. At the same time, watching the film only solidifies Herzog’s status as one of the kings of the modern documentary; as much as Bad Lieutenant (sequel only in name to Abel Ferrar’s 1992 corrupt cop masterpiece) acts as a character study for the drug-addled and disgruntled lieutenant of the title, Terrence McDonagh, the film simultaneously dedicates itself to recording the world of New Orleans post-Katrina and the effects the disaster have had on the city’s people.
Arguably, such a side of the film isn’t necessary at all and one might make the case that it’s a distraction. But in its fashion, Herzog’s examination of the city compliments the depths he plumbs with Cage’s increasingly unstable policeman, and ultimately New Orleans feels like as much of a character in Bad Lieutenant as our eponymous hero.
There’s something of a story woven into Herzog’s movie: McDonagh sustains a back injury in his attempt to rescue a prisoner from his flooded cell, and becomes addicted to the painkillers prescribed him for the pain. Months later, he’s awarded a medal for bravery (though he and his partner, played by Val Kilmer, had been betting on the time it would take for the water to rise to the convicted man’s nose), promoted to lieutenant, and assigned to investigate the executions of six illegal immigrants from Senegal. It turns out that their deaths were the work of Big Fate (Xzibit), the drug dealer that runs their neighborhood. But the story isn’t really the story. Another cop drama would have focused on the stress that the hero’s assignment put on him, and narrowed in on the case far more than the cop himself. Bad Lieutenant isn’t that kind of movie: McDonagh pursues his investigation against Big Fate, all right, but in the meantime he earns his title with increasingly deranged behavior while struggling to maintain all other facets of his life.
Vicodin, we learn, isn’t enough for McDonagh, who at the time the Big Fate case rolls in has become a habitual user of narcotics ranging from marijuana to cocaine. And in order to obtain them, he frequently abuses his status as a police officer, either by nicking them from his precinct’s evidence room or by strong-arming them from civilians. He’s above neither pulling his gun on a pharmacist preparing his prescription, nor bullying a young couple out clubbing to both seize their drugs and take advantage of the girlfriend’s body.
The really sick part is that amidst his barbaric actions, we’re still sort of rooting for him.
Bad Lieutenant never makes a precise effort to truly delve through the layers of one story thread and instead concerns itself with putting Cage up against a multitude of different plot lines. In between striving to convict Big Fate and find justice for the Senegalese family, he balances his relationships with Frankie (Eva Mendes), a prostitute and also his girlfriend, as well as his father and his step mother (the latter played by an almost undetectable Jennifer Coolidge), while also keeping his drug abuse hidden from the world and fending off the bookie (Brad Dourif) to whom he owes a hefty debt. Each of these encounters feel episodic, and in fact almost completely irrelevant. Which they are. This is McDonagh’s story; Cage is the narrative, and Cage is the plot. Everything that happens around him is somewhat incidental, and the real point of the movie frankly is to watch him react to life.
Maybe this doesn’t sound like high praise, or even mild praise, but this is Cage’s movie no matter how you try to look at it. The good news is that he’s aware that it’s his, and he’s passionate about his responsibility to the film: Bad Lieutenant is undoubtedly the best performance Cage has turned out in years. He followed this role up with 2010’s Kick-Ass (a movie we here at the cinema kinda liked a little bit), where he also played a cop with some pretty major psychological issues, and while he shined there Bad Lieutenant is an instant classic in his body of work and one of the roles he should be remembered for but sadly probably won’t. Cage knows when to give crazy and when to reign it in; it sounds odd but he balances muting himself with completely and utterly letting loose, and even when he’s muted he’s impossible to ignore. The actor channels a manic and off-kilter energy that’s positively magnetic. He’s surrounded by a really solid supporting cast that pull their weight handsomely, but he’s so good that they hardly matter: It’s his world, they just happen to be cast in it.
As Cage blends his insanity into his performance, so too does Herzog funnel an unsettled and curious energy into his film. There’s almost a sense of voyeurism in how intimate his camera becomes with McDonagh’s life and the workings of the decaying New Orleans streets that he prowls. Certainly when McDonagh is at his worst (or best, dependent on how you view it), Bad Lieutenant feels almost downright exploitative, and Herzog deftly contrasts the slow corrosion of McDonagh’s soul and humanity with the cracked and ruined face of the city. Films always come down to more than just the involvement of the director and the lead actor, but Bad Lieutenant reads as something of a celluloid duet between the pair, and as much as the movie could not have happened without the contributions of the rest of the cast and crew they all feel superfluous next to director and star. This is a movie about Cage (it practically feels tailor-made for him), by Herzog, forget the rest– and if that doesn’t sit well with you then, then neither will the film most likely. But if you can stomach the showmanship, Bad Lieutenant is a delicious and satisfying piece of moral deterioration.