Absolutely dripping in unhinged visuals, strange characters and a storyline that leaves little room for anyone moderately likeable, this ostensible remake of the cult Harvey Keitel starrer from the early 90s is an odd beast. Batshit director Werner Herzog doesn't care one iota about progressing the story; this film is simply an extension of Nicholas Cage's morally ambiguous cop gone bad. It's also the quirky leading man's finest performance in recent memory.
Cage is Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop who injures his back while rescuing a prisoner during the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina. Told by a doctor he'll be on powerful painkillers for the rest of his life, he soon goes completely off the rails, becoming addicted to various drugs and horribly abusing his power as a newly anointed Lieutenant to get the money for them. Invariably he gets in over his head, and the slow escalation of degenerative behaviour peaks with the shit hitting the fan from every angle imaginable.
Following up another lauded performance in Kick Ass, Cage has begun what looks to be somewhat of a career resurgence, with this effort one of the most bizarre mainstream films you're ever likely to see. Herzog sporadically cuts to close-ups of iguanas, while never really making clear exactly what is real and what McDonagh is just seeing. The German director's hazy execution leaves a lot of what is on the screen open to interpretation, as Cage's twitchy performance doesn't so much decorate each frame as downright engulf it. He's committed, brave and generally searing here - it hopefully marks the beginning of something utterly more fulfilling for the obviously talented, but often derided actor.
It goes without saying that Bad Lieutenant will not be to everyone's taste. It's often erratic and purposefully confusing; but, if you stick with, also wholly satisfying. In many ways, Herzog has bettered Abel Ferrera's original, by taking the bones of the story and taking it in an inherently different direction. The core plot of a cop looking for redemption through the investigation of a horrible murder is here, but Herzog has made this more about the journey. Other filmmakers intent on remaking earlier efforts should look carefully at what has been with this very weird, but frequently brilliant film.