Nicolas Cage plays the titular Lieutenant, Terence McDonagh. In the opening scenes, Terence injures his back saving an inmate from the rising water rushing in after Hurricane Katrina. That may sound like a noble way to get injured in the line of duty, but just minutes previously Terence had been making bets with his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) about when the guy would drown in his cell from the quickly rising water. Months after the injury and Terence is addicted to the vicodin he was prescribed for his back pain, and has graduated his addictions to include cocaine, heroin, crack, gambling, and trading sexual favors for letting a woman out of a ticket (while making her boyfriend watch at gunpoint). McDonagh also spends time with his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), his bookie Ned (Brad Dourif, for once not the craziest actor in his cast), and occasionally goes to visit his dad, who's successfully trying to beat his alcoholism with AA meetings. What Herzog concerns himself with plot-wise isn't really significant, this is another of his many looks at a man nearing on madness. Usually his heroes descend further into madness than they were in the beginning of the movie, and Terence looks to be on the same arc, but maybe things turn out differently for him. I think Herzog might even be giving us his version of a happy ending, who knows.
One thing that is for certain though, is that Cage and Herzog were born to work together. I sometimes forget just how brilliant Cage can be when he works with the right people and material. He, for sure, has done more than his fair share of crap over the years, but he can also be one of our finest actors when put in the correct circumstances. Working with Herzog allowed Cage to be as unhinged as he's ever been, and he hasn't been this brilliant since 2002's Adaptation. He can somehow deliver a (now classic) line like "Shoot him again, his soul is still dancing" and make it sound not like a crazy line, but like a line delivered by a crazy man. And fellow crazy man that he is, Herzog actually shows us the soul that Terence still sees dancing. He also gives us extended shots into the eyes of an alligator and multiple times into the cold staring eyes of a pair of iguanas that Terence continues to hallucinate. They're odd, strangely poetic, and completely fitting in a way that can only be described as Herzog-ian.
There's a performance in the movie even more surprising than Cage's and that's the one of Terence's step-mother Genevieve, played by Jennifer Coolidge, a.k.a. Stifler's Mom. She's constantly drunk on beer, but objects when she finds cocaine in Frankie's purse, yet doesn't object when she catches Terence snorting in the house, saying that they both just have their vices. It's a tremendously real performance next to Cage's wild man performance. There's also rapper Xzibit playing a drug kingpin and holding his own against some serious acting talent. And there are nice little cameos by Fairuza Balk and Michael Shannon. Shannon, despite his recent Oscar nomination for Revolutionary Road, appears in only two scenes for the chance to work with Herzog. Shannon would go on to star in Herzog's next movie.
So Herzog has created his latest great movie, one containing one of the best performances of '09, by Nicholas Cage at his most unrestrained and brilliant in years. He's a filmmaker that continues to intrigue me, always coming up with something interesting, keeping him on a different level than many of his peers. A Herzog movie is incapable of being boring or uninventive, and Bad Lieutenant is no exception.