When Nic Cage teamed up with Werner Herzog for a re-imagining, if you will, of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant expectations were low, but nowhere near as low as those of Ferrara himself. Phlegmatic as ever, he declared: “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar and it blows up.”
We open with a shot of a lone snake in the water. Film students may recognise this as some kind of metaphor. Pull back and it’s revealed we’re in a flooded jail cell and a prisoner is drowning. Of course Nic isn’t just going to rescue the prisoner straight away, he’s got to call said prisoner a “shit-turd” before launching into a tortuous monologue about not wanting to ruin his $55 Swiss cotton undies. Then finally he makes the two foot leap down to rescue the prisoner – don’t do it Nic!
Such an act of bravery is rewarded when he gets the Distinguished Service Cross in recognition of “extreme valour in the line of duty”… by jumping down a two foot sheer drop. But hang on, the film isn’t called Good Lieutenant, is it? Cut to the doctor’s surgery and the first of many dramatic bombshells is dropped: Nic will suffer “moderate to severe back pain,” possibly for the rest of his life. This news pushes Nic over the edge, the switch in his brain marked ACTING is flipped, and all of a sudden he’s Good Nic Gone Bad. At this juncture I should point out his character is called Terence – even the name exudes pure evil.
Anyway, Nic is investigating the execution-style murder of a New Orleans family. An investigation that will lead him into the murky world of drugs, protection rackets, prostitution, gambling, and most chillingly of all, Xzibit trying to act. But first we’ve got Nic’s crack addiction to deal with. He jumps a couple outside a club, pins them against the wall and then takes a honk on the girlfriend’s crackpipe. So far, so routine. But it soon develops into one of the most disturbing scenes in modern cinema as they start rutting against the car whilst Nic launches into some semi-incomprehensible sex banter: “Did your Daddy watch you in the high school play? Did he buy you clothes for school?” he enquires, before presumably blowing his beans when they move on to discussing the curriculum in-depth. Truly the image of Nic’s sex face, resembling as it does a leathery old baseball mitt with a couple of eyeballs glued to it, in the throes of sexual and dramatic ecstasy is one I will never expunge from my brain.
Back to the investigation and Nic’s on the case quicker than Bangkok Dangerous to DVD. He’s bumping fists with black people, bandying about nonsensical insults (chicken shit honk), threatening witnesses and pulling out old women’s respirators during interrogation. He may not play by the rules, he may not even be able to pronounce New Orleans properly, but damn, does he get results. Meanwhile his paunchy partner Val Kilmer spends the entire film staring wistfully into the middle distance, wondering where his career, and his looks, went. But Nic’s upsetting too many people, taking too many risks and too many drugs, and before you can say ‘predictable plot twist’, he’s off the case. Turns out he doesn’t even get results. Oh well, at least it gives him more time to reignite the chemistry with lantern-jawed Latina lovely Eva Mendes which so enlivened Ghost Rider.
Before long Nic is at his lowest ebb, hallucinating iguanas on his coffee table (Iguana-cam being the next leap forward in cinema technology after 3D) and accidentally snorting heroin. Now when asked to depict spiralling drug addiction, most actors might go into rehab and spend time studying other addicts. Nic seems to have taken an altogether different route: he’s studied Danny De Vito’s performance as The Penguin in the DVD of Batman Returns. The nasal delivery, the hunched shoulders – it’s all there. But despite all these afflictions – and a sub-plot involving looking after his dad’s dog, in what I can only assume is an attempt to cash in the success of Turner and Hooch – Nic has a plan to right all these wrongs and solve the case. A plan which hinges on his lucky crackpipe. And a lot more ACTING.
All the while this was happening I endured a raging internal dialogue: “Is this actually any good? Am I watching a good film!?” When Nic is involved, the answer would normally be an emphatic no. He hasn’t troubled the fourth star in Empire Magazine since 2002’s Adaptation. His tax returns and his hairline have garnered more column inches than any of his films. But here his ability to chew through scenery quicker than Hurricane Katrina is perfect for the character and indeed for Herzog’s devil-may-care direction. Just as New Orleans is rising from the wreckage, here we see Cage rising from his cinematic slumber, gesticulating wildly, cackling maniacally and reminding us all (well some at least) what we’ve been missing.