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Bad Lieutenant contains many wonderful things, not the least of which is Nic Cage giving his first great performance in at least half a decade. It also contains the year’s best line of dialogue and maybe also the year’s best ending, one which pulls no punches and doesn’t seem to give a fuck whether you walk out of the theater liking it or not. That these things are wonderful is not really open to interpretation, and I’d question the taste of anyone who doesn’t acknowledge the soul dancing line (which deserves not to be spoiled) as the most badass thing heard inside a movie theater in 2009. What is open to interpretation is whether all of these things fit together into some sort of cohesive whole, or is this just some meandering, drug-addled middle finger? I say it works brilliantly, and now turn your back while I bang your girlfriend and steal your drugs. See this badge? It means I’m a film critic and it means I can trample your movie opinions in any way I want, in pursuit of a greater cinematic good.
That’s an attitude I share with Terence McDonagh, a bad cop if there ever was one. During hurricane Katrina he injures his back while engaged in an act of heroism and now, plagued by constant spasms, his addiction to pain medication has led to an addiction to whatever he can shove up his nose or in his mouth. He gets his fix the way he gets everything in life, by waving his badge and using his police powers to force people to give it to him. McDonagh rousts revelers as they exit clubs and threatens them with arrest unless they give him a hit and a fuck. He lifts whatever he can get his hands on from the evidence room. He sticks his gun, which rests carelessly askew in the waistband of his pants, in the face of anyone who gets in his way.
Yet in spite of his addiction to gross misconduct, McDonagh still believes in the job. More than that, he is the job. He has almost no life outside of his police work, though it grows more and more difficult to keep up the cop façade as every day he slips further and further into a haze of hardcore drug use. Through it all, there’s the pain. Cage lurches across the screen, his stoop growing greater with each passing day as McDonagh’s chronic back pain becomes immune to the constant, numbing chemicals he shoves in his body and so, he must take even more.
McDonagh winds his way through the still struggling city of New Orleans looking for murderers and dealing with the problem of crime solving by joining in on the crime committing. He’s single-minded in pursuit of whatever it is he’s after at any given moment, whether it’s murderers or sex or drugs or momentary love. He protects his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) with the same zeal he applies towards shooting up. It’s all the same to him. He lusts after everything and gets what he wants by waving his badge and threatening until everyone gives in.
The truth of Bad Lieutenant is that sometimes, when you’re after the lowest of the low, it takes one to know one. McDonagh’s partner, played by an understated Val Kilmer, seems determined to look the other way as he lumbers into the precinct trailed by bookies and carrying suspiciously large wads of cash. McDonagh gets results and everyone around him pretends not to notice everything else.
Cage is at his most brilliantly sadistic here, and he’s only helped William M. Finkelstein’s script, which uses as a basis the 1992 Abel Ferrara directed film Bad Lieutenant. The Werner Herzog directed Port of Call New Orleans isn’t a remake exactly, it stands somewhere in a vague gray area between re-imaging and flat out sequel. None of that matters as Cage’s Bad Lieutenant is its own, depraved animal. Finkelstein’s dialogue is blistering and surprising, Herzog’s direction is as surreal and unique as you’d expect from a Herzog movie. It’s funny too, in that same audacious way Inglourious Basterds was earlier this year. It’s the kind of laughter you get when you’ve just done something so astonishing, so over the top, so balls to the wall that your audience simply cannot believe it has actually been done. Cage works that, pushing the movie’s edgiest moments right over the edge, pushing for laughs that another actor might not get.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans has been done to twisted perfection. Herzog’s maniacal movie refuses to flinch as it gleefully leaps into an underworld of degradation and despair in which our hero is barely a hero at all, even if he gets results. And in the end even if McDonagh gets his man, and saves the girl, and makes the world right again we know that still, nothing is right with him. It's not the point. Herzog doesn’t care about leaving you with smiles and candy grams. Bad Lieutenant is all kinds of wrong, but it feels oh so right. Herzog's film is an unhinged, one of a kind experience unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year. Don’t miss it.