It’s been a really long time since I saw Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), starring Harvey Keitel, and all I really remember about it is that it was viciously sexual and absolutely grim from start to finish. So, it’s no wonder, I’d say, that it took me nearly the entire two hours to accept the fact that this film, billed as a “remake” but anything but, is at times more comedy than drama. It’s a little more complicated than that, though, which may have been part of the problem. As the audience was laughing around me in the theater, I confess I frequently found myself sinking down into my seat, uncomfortable and uncertain. The next day, I’m still thinking about this film, completely unable to decide if it was good or not.
The plot was pretty much beside the point — as near as I could tell, its only purpose was to provide a stage for the rest of the movie to creep around on. It’s set in post-Katrina New Orleans and is about a detective, Terence McDonaugh (Nicolas Cage), investigating a drug dealer who has been killing African immigrants trying to move in on his territory. One of the things I liked immediately about the film was the fact it made absolutely no effort whatsoever to turn post-Katrina New Orleans into a character itself. It’s just scenery, really. The setting is almost an afterthought, or a convenience. It helps to color the movie in a tint of despair and provides the excuse for some unusual reptiles, but it’s nothing like the heavy-handed metaphor we’re used to seeing when it comes to post-Katrina NOLA in TV and films these days. I thought that was kind of interesting. Maybe even slightly refreshing, if that’s not an awful thing to say.
That said, the movie started off by annoying the bejesus out of me. It opens with McDonaugh and his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) going into a jail to rescue a prisoner who’s been swimming up to his neck in water since the flooding started, and when McDonaugh dives in to save the guy, he somehow injures his back. Cut to the doctor’s office — here’s a prescription for Vicodin, your back pain will probably be chronic. Cut to six months later, and McDonaugh is now snorting cocaine, smoking crack, stealing and hustling as many drugs as he can from anywhere he can find them, and gradually working his way up to a full-blown heroin addiction.
Those of you who have heard me rail on about the TV show House know why that would’ve instantly made me purse my lips and arch an impatient brow (wait, can brows be impatient? I guess mine can do whatever they want). Did you know that chronic pain patients on opioid painkillers DON’T actually always become addicted to them? You wouldn’t know it from watching TV and movies, that’s for sure.
Nevertheless, though I was all set at that point to dismiss this movie as but another in a long line of frustratingly unoriginal drug addict films, it ended up being a rather fascinating study of a detective who is completely cracked (pun intended). It was weirdly mesmerizing to watch a man so obviously brilliant at his job completely unravel while still somehow managing to remain so obviously brilliant at his job. He wasn’t even bothering to compartmentalize. As he dips more and more into heroin, McDonaugh starts hallucinating — singing iguanas, dancing dead bodies — and begins acting astonishingly erratic (holding a gun to an old lady’s head, for example). And yet, not only does almost no one he works with even look twice at him for it (“There aren’t any iguanas in here”), but he still somehow manages to solve the crimes.
The crazier and higher he gets, the more effective he becomes, and his relationship with girlfriend/prostitute Frankie (Eva Mendes) was such a sad, believable combination of mutual enabling and comfort it made McDonaugh all the more real a character to me. Unlike with Keitel’s lieutenant, who was engineered only to inspire fear, I found myself oddly caring about McDonaugh. I felt actual compassion for him. And the different spin on this very similar character coming from the two actors and two directors is something I found pretty intriguing. I’m looking forward to rewatching the original soon so I can give it some more thought; will report back after I have.
I did have some issues with Nicolas Cage in this film, though. This is a weird, weird movie, and though Cage’s usual exaggerated mannerisms and pulled facial expressions seem like they’d be perfect for the part of a crazy cokehead, there were several moments for me in this film where I got bumped out of the experience because Cage missed a beat. But was he doing that on purpose, is the question. I can’t tell. And therefore, I can’t actually tell you if he was brilliant in this or terrible, that’s how befuddled about the whole thing I truly am. It was such a strange combination of both it’s almost unquantifiable. But I’ll tell you this much: it was definitely memorable.
All in all, I left the theater after this one sort of dazed and confused. Is this is a good film? I think it might not be, actually. In fact, I sort of felt like it was an absolute mess. But where my confusion comes in is the part where I start getting this little nagging feeling that director Werner Herzog, one weird dude himself, may have made it a complete mess on purpose. If that’s the case, he did a bang-up job.
Possibly even a brilliant one.
Man. I knew I should’ve gone to 2012 instead. Ow, my head.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Brad Dourif