Film Review: Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans

2010 – 122mn – 18

Directed by Werner Herzog. Starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer.

Review by Walter Nichols

THERE were surprised looks in 2008 when Werner Herzog, one of the world’s finest and battiest independent filmmakers, announced he would be remaking Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult favorite Bad Lieutenant, which famously featured Harvey Keitel giving us full-frontal nudity. The two filmmakers traded insults (Ferrara saying he hoped Herzog “died in Hell”, Herzog claiming “I have no idea who Abel Ferrara is”), and film fans all over the world derided the project as just another unnecessary remake.

Two years later, Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant is on our screens, and critics everywhere are praising it. It has, in fact, only the most basic premise in common with the original. In post-Katrina New Orleans, cop Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) injures his back and gets addicted to painkillers. This addiction grows to include cocaine and other hard drugs, and he takes up a junkie prostitute (Eva Mendes) as his girlfriend. Six months later, a family is murdered by a drug gang, and Terence is put in charge of the investigation – but instead of trying to solve it, he joins forces with some of the dealers, hoping to score big with them so he can pay back his gambling debts. And he starts hallucinating, as the drugs progressively take over his brain…

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The film earns its 18 rating. It’s full of crime, violence, sex, drug use, and bizarre animal shenanigans. It’s like a deranged fever dream, or a fairground haunted house on speed; and the trippy ride is led by Nicolas Cage, back to his fearless, over-the-top best. The story’s a bit of a mess, but an unpredictable one, and the New Orleans setting is inspired. Darkly comic, maniacal, and squalid, Bad Lieutenant also best represents Werner Herzog’s philosophy of life, a sort of cheerful pessimism laced with a thin thread of insanity. It’s Herzog at his most accessible, if not his most memorable.

Bad Lieutenant isn’t for everyone, it’s not going to make anyone’s Best Films Ever list, but it’s inspired and endlessly entertaining, and a cracking reminder that crime stories don’t have to be dull, heavy, and moralistic to make their point.

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Star rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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