By coincidence, Bad Lieutenant: Not the One With Naked Harvey Keitel (as I like to think of it) finally touched down in Vermont at the same time as Kevin Smith’s Cop Out. One of them is the funniest cop movie in years, and it’s not the one being advertised as a comedy.
This film from legendary director Werner Herzog is what you’d call divisive. Roger Ebert put it on his list of best films of the decade. Meanwhile, a bunch of articulate commenters on the New York Times website insist it’s the worst movie they’ve ever seen. Many note with indignation that all it has in common with Abel Ferrara’s cult film Bad Lieutenant (1992) is the title.
Should you chance it? Take a reading of your Nicolas Cage tolerance. If you enjoyed him in Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation but cringe when he throws all restraint to the winds, lop two stars off the rating on this review. If, on the other hand, you still fondly remember Cage gobbling a roach in Vampire’s Kiss or cackling like a maniac in Face/Off, get to the theater immediately. The actor is hooked on his own house blend of goofy vulnerability and lunacy, and Herzog, who loves to document insanity, is the perfect enabler.
Cage’s character here, the titular bad lieutenant in the Big Easy, is hooked on plenty of other stuff, too, though he notes defensively that “It’s all prescription. Except for the heroin.” (And the cocaine.)
The “worst movie ever” assessments of Bad Lieutenant may have something to do with the script, which suggests a police procedural dreamed up by wasted college students at 3 a.m. while waiting for pizza to arrive. “There’s this cop, see, and he’s a badass maverick who doesn’t play by the rules. Only we’re talking a real maverick. A doctor prescribed him Vicodin after he put his back out saving somebody from Hurricane Katrina, and now every chance he gets, he’s snitching contraband from the Property Room. He shares his stash with a hot call girl (Eva Mendes), owes thousands to a bookie (Brad Dourif), waves his gun around and abuses his badge to get high and laid. But nobody seems to notice, and he just keeps getting promoted. Because it’s America! Totally ironic, man.”
In reality, Bad Lieutenant was written by a seasoned veteran of the genre — William Finkelstein, whose credits include “Murder One,” “NYPD Blue” and, yes, “Cop Rock.” One can only conclude that, bored with the conventions of the gritty urban whodunit, he opted to turn them into farce.
This apparently suited Herzog, who doesn’t seem too interested in solving the plot’s central mystery, either. (It involves a murdered Senegalese family and a drug dealer named Big Fate [Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner].) What does interest the director is satirizing American hypocrisy — albeit on an intellectual level seldom exceeding that of our hypothetical wasted students — and staging bizarrely beautiful shots of animals. Perhaps Herzog has made peace with animals since he warned us not to find humanity in their eyes in Grizzly Man. Or maybe what he likes about them is precisely how restful their inhumanity feels after the flailing of Cage and his costars. Whatever the reason, you’ve never seen a fish or an iguana looking quite so beatified.
Herzog may well view Cage’s bad lieutenant as the archetypal ugly American: He takes what he wants, invents half-assed rationalizations, shudders with guilt for a few seconds and then goes back and does it all again. The thing is, he’s also perversely likeable. Unlike other actors renowned for their excesses — Mel Gibson, say — Cage doesn’t hide behind an armory of macho “intensity.” Like The Dark Knight’s Joker or Omar Little from “The Wire,” the Bad Lieutenant puts it all out there, and he owns it. And that’s why, even though the movie breaks every law of plausibility with glee, it’s a tall tale bound to be quoted for years to come.