The clearest difference between Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant is a question of genre. Ferrara’s was a horror film. Herzog’s is a comedy.
In Bad Lieutenant, Ferrara — in concert with screenwriting collaborators Nicholas St. John and Zoe Lund and his barbaric muse Harvey Keitel — imagined a morally corrupt, spiritually bankrupt cop stranded, howling, in the demon-infested cave of his soul. The catalyzing incident in Ferrara’s film was nothing less than the rape of a nun. There’s nothing so symbolically fraught sending Herzog’s vessel, a satisfyingly unhinged Nicolas Cage, on his psychic bender. The bad lieutenant here is just a dope-addicted, power-tripping, downward-spiraling debacle of a police detective, but one with a spark of humanity still alive behind dead eyes. Terence McDonagh, a lieutenant in New Orleans homicide, gets his coke confused with his smack, can’t exactly provide for his working-girl girlfriend (Eva Mendes), and has a gambling problem that can’t be solved by flashing a badge and a gun. But Herzog is careful to paint the glimmer of a soul into this man’s shadow, dedicating an early scene to Terence’s decision to save a man even as his dumbfuck partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) encourages him to let the guy drown. Cage plays him with his left shoulder hunched up as he walks, talking as though through puffed-up cheeks and staring out from behind eyelids that seem to want nothing more than to droop closed for one good night of sleep.
The ghosts of New Orleans haunt Terence, and they seem to have drawn Herzog to make a movie on these locations. A title card specifies that the film takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and his camera is fascinated by the spare urban locations, which give the film an almost vérité feel. In one scene, as Terence conspires to sneak up on a suspect from behind, Herzog frames him banging on the door of the next-door apartment in the shoddy little duplex, then has his camera follow him all the way through the house, across the back yard, and into the next dwelling. The move simply emphasizes the film’s sense of place, reminds the viewer that the film wasn’t shot on soundstages and California locations carefully delineated to pass for Louisiana. Amidst the general squalor, Herzog finds tiny moments of poetry. Surveying a murder scene, Terence finds a snatch of verse written by one of the victims, who was describing a pet fish with a fin made of clouds. (Herzog lingers for a moment on the fish itself, looking a little cramped in a highball glass, as Cage peers in from the other side.) That fish, suspended underwater, is another reminder of terrible reality: men drown. Later, in a scene that became a classic even before the film’s release, thanks to a leaked promotional trailer, Terence instructs a gunman to shoot a corpse one more time. Why? “His soul is still dancing,” comes the answer, and Herzog cuts to a shot in which the red-jacketed carcass of a puffy thug has indeed come back to life in the form of a sleek breakdancer, spinning and kicking in tiny circles. It’s terribly silly, but it also feels a bit sublime, not least because the dance moves are not so far removed from the helpless flopping a fish out of water might make as it gasps its last. In context, it’s a truly complex image – funny, sad, endlessly evocative.
Herzog has famously claimed not only that he’s never seen Bad Lieutenant, but also that he has no idea who Abel Ferrara is. I’ll just say maybe that’s true. But it seems likely that screenwriter William M. Finkelstein is familiar with the original film, and this one is notable mainly in its departures. In Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel’s character pulls over a young woman driver to intimidate her into playing along while he masturbates outside her driver’s side door. In The Bad Lieutenant, Cage’s character plants dope on passersby, strong-arming the girls into giving him some action and commanding their hapless boyfriends to stand by and watch. It’s not exactly model behavior, but if it’s a reprehensible act, it’s at least more virile, less solipsistic, and arguably less altogether pathetic. The religious iconography of the original film has been muted, surfacing only when Cage dallies with Heidi (Fairuza Balk), a sexy state trooper of his acquaintance, in her apartment strewn with all manner of overtly Catholic decor. And then there’s the general tack taken in the film’s final reel, which I don’t want to spoil, but let’s just call it hilariously ballsy. In important ways, this film exists in opposition to Ferrara’s film — it comments on it without imitating it, or even making explicit reference.
But we can leave the writer out of it. This film really takes off when it becomes its most Herzogian — when a camera, operated by Herzog himself, suddenly drops down to eye-level with a gator eyeballing a car wreck from the side of the road, or with a pair of iguanas that appear on McDonagh’s coffee table. No one else in the movie seems to see said iguanas. But Herzog does, and he stops the film dead to get down low with the animals, shooting past their faces and up toward Cage’s so that the lizard affinity of all their facial features is thrown into undeniable relief. These are show-off moments, of course, but they also catalyze a chemical reaction that makes The Bad Lieutenant weird and charming rather than bizarre and tiring. Herzog has found a worthy foil in Cage, whose deftly exaggerated comic performance — his best since Face/Off, at least — helps elevate the director’s idiosyncracies into the realm of magic. (Imagine the trainwreck that would ensue if a scowling Christian Bale, for instance, came on set to growl, “His soul is still dancing” in his muppet-Batman voice.) Cage, a born Hollywood skin-walker, somehow hints at a spiritual dimension to all this lunatic mayhem. In this leathery transformation, he manages to makes recklessness sing.