He doesn’t go quite so far as eat a live cockroach on screen in Werner Herzog’s darkly comic crime thriller Bad Lieutenant, but his deliriously unhinged portrayal of the film’s titular bent cop certainly ranks right up there with his most memorably off-kilter performances.
Cage’s character, Terence McDonagh, is a New Orleans police officer who’s been left with permanent back pain after rescuing a prisoner from drowning during Hurricane Katrina. He’s been self-medicating ever since, graduating from prescription drugs to a serious coke and crack habit.
Add to this an out-of-control gambling addiction and you’d think McDonagh would be the last person to get on top of a torturous murder case involving the slaying of five members of an immigrant family by a local drug lord. Yet McDonagh’s warped methods prove surprisingly effective.
The way the plot pans out is partly Herzog having fun with the police procedural genre, but it’s also, I reckon, a way to distance himself from his film’s source – Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant, which starred Harvey Keitel as a corrupt-to-the-core New York cop whose pursuit of the thugs who raped a nun in a church gives him a shot at spiritual redemption.
As anyone familiar with Herzog’s films will tell you, spiritual redemption doesn’t figure at all in his world-view. “I believe that the common denominator of the universe is chaos, hostility, murder,” is how he summed up his bleak outlook in the voice-over for his 2005 documentary Grizzly Man.
Herzog claims he’s never seen Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, but his version (from a script by William Finkelstein) doesn’t just loosely parallel the original film’s plot, his star also follows Keitel in his willingness to embrace close-to-the-edge improvisation.
Keitel famously improvised much of his role in Ferrara’s film and Cage does the same here, coming up with some of the movie’s most striking moments in the process.
He came up with a bizarre speech about an American footballer sprouting antlers this way, as well as the equally bizarre phrase “to the break of dawn, baby”, which McDonagh riffs on while brandishing a gun in the face of gangster Big Fate (rapper-turned-actor Alvin Xzibit Joiner) and his goons. “I’ll kill all of you. To the break of dawn. To the break of dawn, baby.”
Cage’s performance is right up there with cinema’s greatest bad cops, but it also echoes one of the greatest screen (and stage) villains of them all. Cage consciously modelled McDonagh’s twisted back – which looks as if he put on his suit in the morning, but forgot to take out the coat hanger first – on Olivier’s Richard III.
That’s very good, or rather, very bad, company to be in.
Released on Blu-ray & DVD on 27th September.