When we first meet Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), he’s a fairly decent guy, risking his life to save a drowning man and suffering chronic back damage in the process, a pain which leads directly to his self-medicating downfall. And while the discovery of a murdered immigrant family may provide an opportunity for redemption which chimes with the earlier movie, Herzog and screenwriter William Finkelstein seem entirely indifferent to the ideas of Catholic guilt and salvation which Ferrara explored, just as McDonagh himself seems largely uninterested in solving the crime. This is a movie about morality, but only as far as it serves the crazed characterisation and breathless juggernaut plot.
And yet the hijacking of Ferrara’s title serves the film in unpredictable ways. First, it establishes the kind of seedy, neon-lit milieu in which Herzog’s film luxuriates, a devastated post-Katrina New Orleans where normality has been hopelessly compromised. And second, it makes the movie feel cheap and grubby, an unofficial sequel made without the consent of the original director, a true slice of down ’n’ dirty outsider trash.
And that’s exactly what this ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is: unashamed, all-American junk, a flashback to those great genre movies of the ’70s and ’80s which managed to entertain an audience, undermine society and score a few sly political points along the way. Cage’s performance is the engine that drives the film, degenerating from dedicated detective to hoarse, gibbering drug fiend in under two hours. And as he transforms, the movie goes with him, from straight cop drama to screamingly excessive operatic fantasy complete with wild experimental asides and thunderous, balletic violence.
There’s never been a movie quite like this before, and there almost certainly never will be again: following its abject failure in the US, it’s hard to imagine the studos hiring another manic German maverick to helm a cop thriller. But that’s exactly why the movie is unmissable: in fusing European experimentalism and Hollywood boldness, Herzog has created a genuine oddity, a furious and unforgettable hybrid which may well prove to be 2010’s most purely enjoyable moviegoing experience.