Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
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There's a scene toward the climax of Bad Lieutenant when a group of killers is dispatched by a group of drug dealers, and during the melee Terence McDonagh, a drug-addled New Orleans policeman played by Nicolas Cage, looks on with the line "Shoot him again. ... His soul is still dancing." The supporting visuals include a break dancer going through some high-profile moves as a bayou harmonica wails on the soundtrack. The moment stands out as a picture of the bad lieutenant's frame of mind, and as a metaphor for the film itself.
During the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) a city Police Sergeant saves the life of a forgotten detainee and hurts his back in the process. Six months later, having been promoted to Lieutenant and suffering incurable back pains Terence is addicted to Vicodin, plus a host of illegal drugs like cocaine and marijuana which he shares with his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), and the detective obtains the goods by falsifying police documents, and by shaking down drug users and dealers. When investigating the assassination of an illegal-immigrant Senegal family Terence discovers that a local drug dealer named Big Fate (Alvin 'Xzibit' Joiner) may have been the man who ordered the killing. A delivery boy Daryl (Denzel Whitaker) is discovered who was hiding when the crime took place and may offer an identification of the killer. Terence is given the job of protecting Daryl until he can testify for a jury but the boy runs away and Terence falls further into drugs and gambling, racking up big losses which he must repay. Terence goes to Big Fate and trades police information for drugs and money to maintain his habit and pay his gambling debts and confronts the challenge of staying ahead of the ravages of drug abuse to do his job.
Werner Herzog dragged a massive river boat across a mountain top in his film Fitzcarraldo in 1982, and here in 2009 he drags the police genre from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and resuscitates it before our eyes, effectively upturning the conventions in an effort to show how things really are. Herzog readily jettisons whatever poetic justice supposedly exists in the genre, and subverts the genre conventions so that the viewer may be left scratching his head wondering what to glean from the story.
With Terence's long-standing love affair with his prostitute girl friend Frankie Donnenfield, played woodenly by Eva Mendes, based on their mutual use of cocaine, perhaps it is just irony that this man receives a promotion and marries and starts a family. Herzog uses water as a connecting metaphor for the phases Terence goes through. With the visual of a water moccasin swimming in the water at the opening of the movie to Terence's rescue of a forgotten prisoner about to drown to Terence's reading of a poem a young man has written to his pet gold fish, and finally to his line in the film "Do fish have dreams?", there is the overriding feeling that these characters are swimming around in an infested pool with the only delineating characteristic being a personal code of ethics to keep them afloat.
Regardless of Terence's personal addictions and his abuse of the law to take drugs from recreational users for his own use, Terence follows through with his dedication as a police officer to ferret out crime and arrest those breaking the law. It might be a stretch to claim that director Herzog has crafted a film that celebrates drug use but the way that each character in the movie is affected by some form of self-medicated abuse is paramount. Terence's Dad is a recovering alcoholic who only can muster enough energy to attend meetings of Alcoholic Anonymous.
Terence's step mother Genevieve, played by Jennifer Coolidge is a picture of white-trash sensitivity, outraged that her step son's girl friend is a prostitute and has brought cocaine into the family household. The confession that Genevieve makes to Terence as the two of them watch TV as a Spanish matador get gored by a bull is only one of the indications that the world Herzog means to throw light on is one in which the personal abuse of characters via drug use, is to remain something that is only shared with loved ones.
There is of course the singular pleasure of watching Nicolas cage chewing the scenery through the film. Whether it be in small talk with associates over the everyday details of a stake out, as his character Terence hallucinates the presence of two Iguanas slithering away on a nearby coffee table, or demanding prompt attention at the pharmacy as he awaits his Vicodin prescription refill, Cage fulfills all we have come to expert from his larger-than-life persona. The actor possesses an enormous snake tattoo that runs over most of his back, something he received during a moment of mad infatuation when he was married to Lisa Marie Presley and I wondered why he didn't take the opportunity to show it off as it certainly would have fit in with the film's themes and the Cage's character. Maybe we'll see it next time.
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older