“I’ll kill all of you. To the break of dawn, baby.”
Our friends who know we love Nic Cage were flabbergasted whenever we told them we had not seen Bad Lieutenant yet. Typical exchange:
FRIEND: You guys like Nic Cage? Really? Well, Bad Lieutenant was actually a decent movie.
US: We haven’t seen it.
FRIEND: What?? My flabber is gasted.
Werner Herzog’s film is a mess, but a thoroughly entertaining one. Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans detective with a drug and gambling problem. The film does not give his middle name, but it is almost certainly “Rogue.” McDonagh’s character is a freaky synthesis of Jimmy McNulty, Vic Mackey and Jack Bauer. (While he refrains from outright torture, McDonagh does pull out a shut-in’s breathing tube and point a gun at her to extract valuable information from her caretaker. Bauer would’ve been impressed.) Those are all TV characters, so if you want some film analogues let’s go with Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington in Training Day), Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell in Dark Blue), and Ray Liotta’s character from Unlawful Entry. What none of these other characters had, however, was Cage’s capacity for unhinged glee. McDonagh may be on the road to hell, but at least he’s still having fun.
Andrew O’Hehir, who interviewed Herzog for Salon when the movie was released in 2009, commented, “Nicolas Cage’s performance in this movie is amazing. The character is both irresistible and thoroughly despicable. I wasn’t sure whether I loved him or hated him, which may be exactly what you guys were going for.” Herzog responded,
You can see the film the way you want to see it, I do not want to dictate that. But one thing is obvious: He is absolutely formidable. … There’s something which was guiding us. I told Nicolas that there’s such a thing as, like, the bliss of evil. Let’s go for it! Enjoy yourself! The more vile and the more debased you get, the more you have to enjoy it. That creates this very strange and very subversive humor.
What separates Bad Lieutenant from any other crooked cop movie is Herzog’s sublime, hallucinatory flourishes, which blur the line between reality and how McDonagh perceives it. Our favorites include a trippy sequence where McDonagh is the only one who sees two iguanas on his desk, and the moment immediately after some drug dealers shoot a bounty hunter and his two enforcers. McDonagh says, “Shoot him again.” The dealers ask why. McDonagh responds, “His soul is still dancing,” then laughs maniacally while one of the dead dealers is now breakdancing on the spot where he was just shot. This is, simply put, one of the greatest scenes we have ever seen on film.
There is also, for good measure, the standard, profanity-laced Cage flip-out moment, which (like Matchstick Men) takes place in a pharmacy. Cage’s shoulders are hunched over because he has chronic back pain, and the Quasimodo effect only enhances the strangeness of his performance. McDonagh is a genuinely dangerous character, but he lurches around New Orleans like a grotesque misfit. (Cage’s recent run-in with the law in New Orleans may have been the result of him forgetting to step out of character.)
After finishing Bad Lieutenant, we were immediately possessed of the simultaneous desires to watch it again, as if to verify that what we had just seen was, like those iguanas, really there, and to have certain parts of it wiped from our memory. It is a bizarre, grimy, morally ambiguous fever dream. If you’ll recall The Nicolas Cage Matrix, Bad Lieutenant occupies the top right corner, the quintessence of a truly mental, truly brilliant Cage character. Doesn’t it say something about Nic Cage that so few actors would even attempt to pull off a role like this one?