Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant provokes two questions even before we’ve thought much about the film. Both are about timing. Why did it take the best part of a year after its US premiere to find a screen in the UK? And why does the film itself take so long to find out what sort of work it wants to be? It becomes a pretty amazing movie when it does find out, but – this would be a supplementary question – why couldn’t Herzog have found out before or during shooting, or even in the editing room? Was he waiting for Nicolas Cage to turn into Klaus Kinski on the screen? It is possible that the second set of questions is itself an answer to the first.
The movie is ostensibly a remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), with Harvey Keitel, but it’s really a quite different film with the same basic set-up: the cop who is a compulsive criminal, a universal addict – addicted to drugs, gambling, power, snarling, over-acting – but who somewhere amid all the steamy nastiness has something resembling a heart. The tag line on the DVD of the Ferrara film is ‘Gambler. Thief. Junkie. Killer. Cop’, while the Herzog DVD epigrammatically asserts: ‘The only criminal he can’t catch is himself.’ The later film has an odd but quite effective subtitle for good measure: ‘Port of Call New Orleans’. It evokes routine journeys, the tramp ship’s cycle, and what is now everyone’s shorthand for disaster. It’s what Cage says towards the end of the movie when asked if he is still with the police department. He is snorting cocaine in a hotel room at the time, having stolen it from a couple leaving a nightclub – this is one of his tested methods of scoring, we’ve seen him at it before – and he is certainly not going home to his pregnant wife, the lovely hooker Eva Mendes, so the question seems reasonable. Cage says slowly: ‘Port of call still New Orleans.’
One answer to the question about the film’s lingering pace may be that Herzog really wanted to linger. He wanted to suspend Cage’s dreamy, manic or tormented face in front of us for so long it would become a landscape and a story in itself – and allow cineastes to get Harvey Keitel out of their minds. It’s an answer but not much of an excuse, and for its first hour or so the movie feels like a pretty humdrum police procedural, with a little more official misbehaviour than usual, a small drug-related massacre that everyone seems to forget about, even when they are supposed to be investigating it, and a promising complement of snakes, alligators and iguanas. Some of these reptiles, as far as I can tell, are part of the local reality. The film opens with a snake swimming purposefully through a flooded prison, and an alligator appears to have caused a road accident, since it is expiring not far from an overturned car. What might give us pause in the second instance is a low-angle shot of another (live) alligator spying on the scene from a level just below the roadway. It glares at us and slopes off like a bad cop, leaving us to wonder what we are to do with this creature’s-eye view of the world. Still, it’s probably as real as anything is in this movie, and maybe it’s a relative of the green iguanas that Cage sees whenever he’s been indulging in a bit of crack. He hears extra-loud soul music on the soundtrack at the same time, so the product is certainly doing its job. Herzog is doing his too, since we see both the iguanas and Cage from another low angle. We look up at him across what he (and no one else) is seeing; we peer into his mind, so to speak, from across the room, a very strange effect. He looks down towards us, mildly surprised, curious; they’re just iguanas, he’s seen worse.
And then finally the film picks up, finds a plot and its own consistent form of strangeness. Cage owes money to his bookmaker – he bets on American football games – roughs up a young man with strong political connections, threatens an old lady by tearing her oxygen tube out, bullies a football player into throwing a game, and crosses over to the real dark side by selling police information to a top drug dealer. Nothing but trouble is heading his way, and all of it arrives. Somewhere in his frazzled brain, we suspect, is a memory of the crime he is supposed to solve, but even he clearly finds it hard to believe he is playing a double game as clever as the one chance or the scriptwriter has imagined for him: a game in which he could pay his debts by being crooked, and solve the crime by shopping the crooks. When this is how things fall out, Cage is visibly more surprised than we are, and the film moves into a truly haunting mood, apparently about as far from any of Herzog’s signature moments as one can imagine. Where is the madness? This is all serendipity.
The drug dealers kill off the hoodlums who are after Cage; Cage has an idea about tracing the massacre to the chief drug dealer’s DNA; his addicted girlfriend goes into rehab; he himself is promoted to captain (at the beginning of the movie he becomes a lieutenant); and everything is so unreasonably rosy you realise, as your discomfort grows, that this is a perfect if previously uncharted Herzog mood, so sweet it feels insane.
Not that there aren’t more ordinary forms of madness in the film, if ordinary is the word. When the dealers shoot the hoodlums, Cage, still seeing things after a recent puff of crack, suddenly shouts: ‘Shoot him again.’ The dealers look at the three corpses on the floor. Cage insists that the boss hoodlum’s soul is still dancing, and sure enough we see it, breakdancing around the room, although now equipped with a mohawk hairdo rather than the dead man’s snowy locks. The dealer shoots again, the dancer dies, and an iguana shuffles across the floor to remind us whose iconography this is.
But none of this feels as surprising or scary as the mood of serenity that takes over as the film near its end. Everything is perfect. Cage has no debts, he is even winning bets he thought he’d lost a packet on. No one is trying to kill him or rape his girlfriend. He and Mendes have a lovely little house on a lovely little square. The terrible thing in watching this part of the film is how much we want this idyll to end, not because we want Cage to get any sort of comeuppance or because it seems unreal but because randomly synchronised good luck is as crazy as unsynchronised disaster. Mercifully, the idyll does end, in two stages, though not in ways we might expect, and as the screen goes dark after a brief mirthless laugh from Cage, we’re still wondering about our own appetite. If we didn’t want him to be happy, why aren’t we happier to see him saved from happiness?