We disliked this movie. A lot. At some points, I thought it might have been one of the worst movies I’d ever seen: pointless, meandering, incoherent, poorly acted, unbelievable.
But let’s exonerate Nicolas Cage. He is a great actor, and there were traces of some of his best performances — such as in Leaving Las Vegas — and some of his quirkiest — such as Adaptation — and some of his most over-the-top — such as Face/Off. And with the slumped shoulder and periodic internalized grimaces of pain evinced by his character, who suffers from intense and chronic back pain, Cage created a believable shell.
But believability was not what the movie was going for.
Cage’s bad lieutenant is a mix of good and bad instincts and behaviors. He saved a prisoner from drowning (after cruelly mocking him); in so doing, he apparently injured his back, proving that no good deed goes unpunished. Six months later, he is addicted to painkillers — and pretty much anything else he can get his hands on. He routinely abuses his position and authority as a policeman to get drugs. His girlfriend is a similarly addicted prostitute. And he is also a gambler, in debt to his bookie. In short, there is pretty much nothing he is doing that is ethical. His approach to his work is by turns flamboyant — as when he singlehandedly brings in a dangerous perp — and desultory, interrupting an intense murder investigation to take care of his father’s dog. I think this stuff was meant to be funny: he loses a valuable witness by checking out the score on a football game; he threatens two hapless women, depriving one of her oxygen supply and menacing the other with a gun to find out where the witness has gone; etc. These incidents, along with some trippy shots of iguanas and crocodiles — the former ostensibly singing in counterpoint to a police stakeout — show a Pulp Fiction-like sensibility, an everything-is-just-so-ironic attitude.
But ultimately, to what end?
What happens is this. The bad lieutenant gets as baaaad as he can be, abusing his position in scenarios ranging from harrassment to stealing to murder. And then, like the Tim Robbins character in The Player, he ends up with the girl, a baby on the way, and a promotion. But where the Altman film left you with a cold chill, this leaves you with nothing but a postmodern what the hell shrug.
I am sure we are not the right demographic for this, and that younger, hipper audiences will find much to extol, making virtues of its inconsistency and unevenness. In fact, the URL of the blog where I grabbed the picture is http://planetofthenerds.wordpress.com/2009/11/26/herzogs-bad-lieutenant-is-so-good-it-almost-makes-me-want-to-smoke-crack/, which I think points up the difference in our respective perceptions.
I like a dark, twisty noir; I like the Coen brothers. But I also like a film to have a point beyond just being off kilter.