As opposed to the situation in Abel Ferrara's guilt-tormented 1992 original, the "badness" in Werner Herzog's reinvented, sublimely wacko, and invigoratingly transgressive Bad Lieutenant isn't moral, it's existential. For Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, who's played by Nicolas Cage in a performance that will make everyone forget he ate a cockroach in Vampire's Kiss, being good is just another compulsion, like smoking crack, snorting coke, shaking down young couples for dope and sex, or cutting off the oxygen supply of a frail old woman in a rest home. For McDonagh, the ultimate question is not "Why is there evil in the universe?" It's "What the fuck is that iguana doing on my coffee table?"
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans | Directed by Werner Herzog | Written by William Finkelstein | With Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner, Fairuza Balk, Shawn Hatosy, Jennifer Coolidge, Tom Bower, Vondie Curtis Hall, Brad Dourif, and Denzel Whitaker | Firstlook Studios | 121 minutes
Interview: Nicolas Cage. By Peter Keough.
Ah yes, the iguanas. Not just iguanas, but reptiles in general: gators and snakes (not to mention the other cold-blooded types like sharks and manta rays swimming in an aquarium). Do these beasts refer to the reptile brain, that atavistic bulb containing the primal instincts that are probably all McDonagh has left after his chaotic indulgences? Who cares? The iguanas are like the frogs at the end of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, only better.
Whatever the reason, reptiles rule from the first image — a viper slithering in dank water. Hurricane Katrina (never overtly mentioned, but the disaster lingers in the corner of every frame like a whiff of mildew) has flooded a New Orleans jail, and McDonagh debates whether to soil his silk underwear and jump in to save a prisoner left behind. He does so, and like all good deeds, this one doesn't go unpunished. Cut to McDonagh in a doctor's office: his back is screwed for good from his dive into the drink, and the only relief is Vicodin.
Somehow, though, I think he was already going bad before he got this license to be an addict. Cage, for his part, gets a license to unleash all the drunk talk and gleeful, pathological craziness he repressed during his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas. He sweats, he glowers, his veins bulge, and his eyes pop as he lurches about like Klaus Kinski in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, spewing a Tourette-syndrome stream of profanity, hilarity, and free-association non sequiturs. (One of my favorites: the high-pitched, desperate little laugh every time he mentions the name of one of the drug dealers — "G.")
Meanwhile, mobsters threaten his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), his gambling debts become overwhelming, and there's always the need for new sources of illegal substances. Oh, and then there's his job. A gang of drug dealers headed by Big Fate (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner) have mowed down an entire family of Senegalese immigrants, and McDonagh gets the case.
Do those murders touch his benighted moral core the way the raped nun touched Harvey Keitel's lieutenant in Ferrara's film? Perhaps, but mostly I think they give him a focal point. Bringing these clowns to justice, perhaps arbitrarily, becomes the eye of McDonagh's personal hurricane of irrationality, self-destructiveness, and insatiable hedonism.
Will Fate, like the assassin embodying Death in No Country for Old Men, prevail over this Dirty Harry of the new millennium? Either way, his soul is still dancing.