A snake swimming through post-Katrina floodwater opens Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant. Abel Ferrara, director of the original Bad Lieutenant (1992), led his cop (played by Harvey Keitel) through a spiritual crisis on the streets of New York. The Catholic Church was at the forefront of proceedings as Keitel went through the motions of sinning and absolution and sinning and absolution.
Keitel’s character took drugs, gambled endlessly, ran roughshod over the laws he enforced and spent the rest of his free time in the company of prostitutes. These facts persist in Herzog’s reimagining; Nicholas Cage replacing Harvey Keitel. Past that, the films have little in common – at least it appears that way. Ferrara’s film isn’t a comedy, but it would be wrong to ignore the way the film laughs while it lingers on the horror and the cynicism. The film’s humour is bound up in the depravity of the character; the fact that we identify with him very little allows us to laugh at the visual puns and appreciate the one-liners – “What the fuck are you? A drug counsellor or a drug dealer?” – even as he falls apart completely.
Herzog’s humour is, by contrast, full frontal. (Although, unfortunately, Cage doesn’t ever take his clothes off when high as Keitel did.) Cage does over the top like no else in the history of the moving image, and he doesn’t seem to care how far he pushes it. This can sometimes be ridiculous; here it’s perfect. His cop is a man of grand gestures and loud declarations. When we sense Cage putting his foot down and letting go we might always be inclined towards laughter. But it’s more than that. The comedy is black and hard won.
He can pull the tube delivering oxygen to an elderly woman from her nose and have us suppressing giggles as he does it. Moments earlier, he was hiding behind the door waiting for the old woman and her carer to enter the room while pushing an electric shaver around his face. The sight is hilarious for its sheer absurdity. Herzog isn’t interested in realism (Ferrara worshipped it until Christ appeared), in fact he’s not interested in much. The plot is worthless and the director seems bored.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Cage is injured accounting for his lob-sided stance and ends up on medication. Before long, he’s self-medicating by stealing drugs from the police department and slipping further down the rabbit hole. There’s gangsters, murders, prostitutes (he’s in love with one played by Eva Mendes), colourful colleagues and a bookmaker. It’s all by the by though, Nicholas Cage is why we’re here, and it’s why the film will be remembered.
But Herzog has to entertain himself, and he does so via Cage’s crazed hallucinations. These moments take us out of the genre machinations of the plot and inside the head of the character. When Ferrara broke out of his realism, it was to ogle at the sublime vision of Jesus that Keitel’s character was confronted with. This scene in the 1992 film plays for awe and is genuinely shocking in its majesty. In the 2009 film, the soul of a dead man breakdances and small digital cameras place the faces of iguanas and alligators at the forefront of the frame, while the plot carries on in the background. These digressions emphasise better than anything else the differences and similarities between the two films.
Cage’s plight follows the same route as Keitel’s but it’s never taken as seriously. Both films highlight the hypocrisy and indifference to reality of public institutions – Cage rises through the ranks of the police department, every misdeed rewarded with a promotion. His redemption towards the end is entirely false though. The criminal he saved from the snake in the water at the start of the film reappears, he’s doing well now. Cage, on the other hand, is about to indulge in the succour yielded by cocaine. The pair somehow end up sitting in front of an aquarium tank where sharks swim. Cage is the happier of the two, but then he’s the one with the cocaine up his nose. He just might die with a smile of his face after all. As if we ever doubted it.