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Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Bad Lieutenant Review (Text)

Well, it finally happened. I’ve been trying to see The Bad Lieutenant ever since I heard about it from Noah Antwiler way back in April (On the very same day I was tripping out on Sub Coca Dragon, in fact), and today, I finally managed it. Fuck Yeah.

“So”, you may be thinking to yourself “what did you think of it? Was it any good?” to which I shall respond: Hey, you know how these reviews work – I talk about plot, then actors, then technical crap, and then conclude with what I thought at the end. If you don’t like it, go elsewhere. But don’t really, because I need the viewers. I may even get AdSense if I can ever break 10,000 viewers a month (I won’t).

Now, something that surprised me about this story was how early on Nicolas Cage makes Lieutenant. We literally only have one scene before he is promoted, in which he saves a prisoner caught in his cell as the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina sweep in (yeah, it’s set in New Orleans after Katrina, did I not mention that?), and then we go straight to the ceremony where he is made lieutenant and awarded the medal of valour for his bravery in jumping into the water to save the guy. This wasn’t what I had been expecting, as I had thought we were going to see Nicolas Cage set up as being the bad cop who is about to be kicked off the force for abusing suspects and taking drugs and drinking on the job, who the Commanders are forced to promote against their better judgment after he commits a truly heroic act that gets a lot of media attention – and whilst this is sort of what happens, it seems as though none of the characters really know about Cage’s problems at the start of the film, and the possibility that he only starts using drugs on a regular basis after injuring his back trying to save the prisoner in this first scene is also hinted at. Whilst this was completely different to what I was expecting, however, I still thought this set-up worked really well.

The primary reason for this is that it adds a whole new layer of meaning to the film. Cage’s character, Terence, is prescribed drugs for his back injury right at the start of the film, but starts using more and more illicit drugs as the film goes on. Whilst the character was clearly supposed to have been using drugs for quite some time before hand, it is implied that he starts to take a lot more to self-medicate for his back pain, and this is a theme which the movie comes back to at several points. The movie switches from manic and hyper, to dark and depressed, to slow and chilled, like it was nothing. These transitions are incredibly smooth, and don’t always fit the action on the screen, but are still very noticeable, and really affect the feeling of the movie. Clearly, the movie is shot in this manner to reflect Terence’s mood swings, as he succumbs either to the effect of the drugs, or to a post-injury mental illness, most likely a form of bi-polar disorder, judging from the mood swings and hallucinations. This is a really cool effect, and shows how the injury, stress and the consequent abuse of drugs is really taking its toll on the character, which makes the film infinitely more fun to watch.

Whilst the infamous ‘Iguana scene’ does have a hilarious surreal quality to it, in the same manner as a lot of the humour in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas came from the characters reacting to hallucinations or severe attacks of paranoia, a lot of the funniest scenes in the film occur when Cage appears to be completely lucid, owing to his bizarre interactions with other characters. The drug-store argument is sheer genius, and an amazing scene. But it is topped later on in the film with yet another similarly-insane scene.

One of the funniest reactions Cage has whilst out of his head on crack and heroin is depicted in a scene where he attempts to interrogate an old woman to find out where her grandson is, and winds up almost suffocating another elderly woman by taking her oxygen tube out of her nose. When the Grandmother tells Cage where the boy can be found, Cage returns the woman’s oxygen tube, before going on a rant about how he should have let her die, and how people like her who live in homes and use up all their kids inheritance are what’s ruining the country. It’s a hilariously over-the-top reaction, and incredibly dark, but a brilliantly filmed and acted scene, where you can really see the insanity start to creep in for Terence.

But not all of the humour in the film is derived from the increasing insanity of its main character. Instead, there are a lot more subtle jokes hidden within the film. For example, at one point we see Cage walking into a Grocery Store in a black neighbourhood, as some kids play outside. One kid walks past Cage and right by the camera, and we realise "hey, that isn't a kid, that's a dwarf!" - Herzog actually dressed a midget in kids clothes just to fuck with white people who can't tell the difference between a black kid and a black midget - And it's the small things like this that really add surreal humour to the movie without being in-your-face insane. Another such example is one of the first things that really made me laugh out loud whilst watching ther film, where in an early scene where we see Terence sitting and talking to his captain with his gun shoved down the front of his trousers like he’s a gangster. What made this even funnier is the sheer size of the weapon – a .44 magnum. In fact, during a later scene where Terence goes to arrest a suspect, we see him walking through a neighbouring house and yard in a brown suit, holding the gun up with his hair back, and he looks just like Dirty Harry. This is obviously an intentional reference on Herzog’s part, but was a really cool tribute, and also possibly shows what the character thinks of himself. He feels he is like Harry Callaghan, breaking the rules, but still getting results he couldn’t if he stuck to them. Or maybe it’s because he’s gone so batshit insane he doesn’t care how it looks for a Detective Lieutenant to be walking around with a gigantic handgun just casually shoved into his waistband.

Is that an anti-tank weapon in your pants, or are you just pleased to - OH FUCK IT'S A CANNON!

Not only is the humour in the film all fantastically executed, but the actual story itself is a really cool, exciting one, which would have still worked really well even without the surreal elements. The plot unfolds nicely, with various story arcs overlapping each other, and coming together with comical results. The execution of these storylines is flawless, and is very reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s early films, where he would set up multiple storylines for different characters, and let them progress individually before finally bringing them all together in one dramatic scene. Of course, The Bad Lieutenant is entirely focused on Cage (I believe he is in every scene), so there is nothing quite this complicated going on, but it still unfolds in a similar manner, with different plotlines overlapping at times, as if by chance, and it is really cool just sitting back and watching everything come together.

The movie is also shot in a really interesting way, with most of the action framed in a fairly conventional manner, but occasionally deviating into completely different styles when trying to highlight a certain point. For example, in a shootout scene, the lighting is done in such a way that the smoke seems to hang in the air for ages before finally settling, and the gunshots are all highlighted as though the director is trying to show their importance. Likewise, in one scene set at the scene of a traffic incident, we cut away from the action to a crocodile sitting by the side of the road, watching, and the camera changes to what appears to be a Super-8 film, and some chilled-out trippy music starts to play as the Croc just sits there, and watches everything unfold. To say Oliver Stone would be proud is an understatement. I think Werner Herzog got fed up with Stone making films like World Trade Centre and Alexander, and decided cinema needed to be taken back to the days of Natural Born Killers. And who could argue with that?

Certainly not Robert Downey, jr.

The acting in the film is also amazing. Cage plays the unhinged Terence fantastically, and only plays Nicolas Cage in a couple of scenes, managing to actually create a different character to himself for most of the film (contrary to what I may have said in my review of “Next”). Val Kilmer is also great as Cage’s partner who just does not give a fuck about anyone. At a couple of points, he advocates just letting suspects die, or even actively killing them, and when Cage is blatantly hallucinating in the iguana scene, Kilmer just stands there, not particularly bothered by the whole affair. He also appears to have lost some of the ridiculous amount of weight he put on post-Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which is good to see.

Shit, actually, he doesn't look that much fatter than I am - I need to rethink my life...

Eva Mendez also turns up as Cage’s prostitute girlfriend, and gives a fairly convincing performance. Not to give too much away on my final rating of the film, but it’s funny that Mendez has appeared as the girlfriend/wife of a cop in both what are probably my favourite and least favourite films of 2010. It’s also quite funny that she always seems to be the girlfriend of the ultra-criminal drug dealing cop, regardless of whether it’s Nicolas Cage or Denzel Washington.

She got dat FINE ASS!

The biggest surprise in the casting, however, has to be XZibit, who turns up as one of the bad guys of the piece, who Cage starts to work for once his case against him falls apart, and he gets heavily into debt. I think the last time I saw XZibit in a film was when I watched Derailed years ago. No, scratch that, he was in triple X 2: The Next Level as well. However, both of those films intentionally cast rappers simply because they were rappers (Derailed also starred RZA from the Wu Tang Clan, and XXX 2 also starred DMX or Method man or someone who once did a song with Limp Bizkit). In The Bad Lieutenant, however, X seems to have been given the chance to show off his actual acting cred, and he’s pretty damn good. Though, not good enough that people are likely to start remembering him for his acting rather than his meme potential:

Stiffler’s mum from American Pie is in it, too, but that’s a story for another day.


Aside from the actual content of the film, however, one of the things which is most outstanding is the locations depicted. We go from the richer, fully intact and repaired areas of New Orleans, where there are high-rise hotels and casinos, down to the projects, and see the level of devastation present. Whether the neighbourhoods shown in the film were deliberately messed up to make them look more like they did right after Katrina hit or not is something I’d be interested in knowing, having seen the Top Gear special where they go to New Orleans a couple of years after the disaster to see that nothing’s changed in the projects, and everywhere is still in ruin. Herzog uses all the locations he can find to great effect, and executes his scenes masterfully.

Other than that, there’s really not all that much to tell. The soundtrack is eclectic, reflecting the state of Terence’s sanity at varying points, and the lighting is all very well done and not too in-your-face, and that’s about it. This movie is fantastically dark whilst still laugh-out-loud hilarious, and is shot and acted in beautifully. This is undoubtedly one of my favourite movies of 2010, right up with Inception, Toy Story 3, and The Book of Eli (and, of course, The Expendables). Maybe 2010 wasn’t the best year for cinema, and the Oscars were a joke – but we have had a couple of great movies, right?

Just before I wrap this up, I just wanted to talk about the title. The DVD case says “Bad Lieutenant” (Without “The”) on it, but when I was watching the actual film, the title was given as “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans” – is this just because the British title was changed from the American one but they couldn’t be bothered to re-edit the title sequence, or is this really a movie with 2 names? I still find it weird when I go to watch Rambo and realize it’s actually called ‘First Blood’, so I was freaked out a little by this. But not to worry, I’ll post this as a review of “The Bad Lieutenant”, and leave the rest up to God. Or Allah, or whoever…

I guess now I just need to watch the original Harvey Keitel film, right?



5 stars

Sorry to give you such a short review, but I really don’t want to spoil anything for you – this is a great movie, and a must see. Hell, even if you’re not a Cage fan, there’s still a good chance you’ll like it, it’s that well done. I would say this is probably my favourite movie of 2010, beating Inception simply because Inception invited you to think about it through its complex plot, and thus felt like it was intentionally trying to make us look at the plot holes that were present in the story. The Bad Lieutenant, however, is clever, but not in such a way that forces you to over-analyse it, and is incredibly good fun to just sit back and watch. I highly recommend this film – it’s undoubtedly Cage’s best work. Now I suppose I should go check out Rescue Dawn and see if Herzog is consistently great.


P.S. Since it’s been exactly 25 years since Phil Lynott died, I leave you with this YouTube link as a tribute to the man.

If only there was more music like Thin Lizzy around these days, huh?

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