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Bad Lieutenant

by Roger Young / 26.08.2010

At first look, and by most standards, Bad Lieutenant is a batshit crazy film. However in the context of it being a Werner Herzog remake of an Abel Ferrara film starring Nicholas Cage it ends up feeling lazy; a series of easy and crudely handled jokes. This, being a Herzog film, may be the point, a great nihilistic shrug at random cruelties of existence. Or it may just be a dark comedy that pokes fun at the bad cop makes good genre. What it isn’t is a remake of the 1992 film staring Harvey Keitel as a bad cop in New York with a crack and gambling habit who investigates the rape of a nun while facing his own demons at the same time, Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant shares a name and basic concept with Herzog’s (And a producer, who had the copyright on the name, so there you go) but they are two entirely different films, and not only because they’re set in different cities with different crimes but mostly because Harvey Keitel’s bad cop is a bleak study in very real emotional territory while Cage and Herzog’s version is a comedic study set in some very intellectually bleak territory.

Cage’s performance as drug stealing, whore banging, gambling cop Terry McDonagh comes off like a crack head’s memory of what being a crack head was like. It’s shrouded in behavioral ticks while staying away from the emotional core. Herzog’s rambling storytelling allows McDonagh’s investigation into the murder of five Senegalese illegal immigrants to descend into bribery, witness misplacement, parking lot shakedowns that include coerced sex, dead crocodiles, coitus-concerned mafia sidekicks, comedic parent alcho-spouses in rehab avoidance mode and shady deals in waterfront property. So far off the investigation trail does McDonagh go that it feels exactly like a crack and heroin binge until you’re made to realize just how close to the trail he has been (or, and this is the trick, has he?). At which point it just starts to feel like bad acid. Herzog’s sleight of hand is that, when the plot ties up, it’s all just a little unreal, unbelievable, convenient to the nth degree and leads to a questioning of the veracity of the film, the plot and, of course, the genre. As an intellectual exercise it’s obvious and frustrating, as a comedy it’s deeply, cringingly funny. As an investigation into power it can be disturbingly arousing but as part of the Herzog canon Bad Lieutenant is fluff, at best an afterthought. It is, however, worth seeing for the wistful look Cage gives his lucky crack pipe (doesn’t everyone have one?) as it is shown to him in an evidence bag before being whisked away. That and the over indulgent trippy iguana sequence which gives you the biggest clue to the level of seriousness Herzog takes the whole endeavor.

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