Who’s up for a quick comparison of the Bad Lieutenants? Good. But if you haven’t seen one or either of them here’s the basic story to both. A cop, lieutenant to be exact, rams through his life and job by doing just about everything illegal under the sun. He takes tons of drugs, steals, gambles on sports, falsifies reports, threatens folks, molests women and generally abuses his power. There’s a big case he’s supposed to be solving but gets sidetracked with all the stuff I listed in the last sentence. This lieutenant is not a good guy. And I guess that what makes the character so engaging to watch. Dirty cops are always fascinating but this version takes it to the extreme.
Let’s cut right to it, as far as who the badder lieutenant is there isn’t a clear winner. The big thing for McDonagh (of Port of Call New Orleans (POCNO)) is he ends up creating a pretty substantial criminal enterprise for himself when he partners up with drug kingpin Big Fate. We’re talking major distribution here as well as all the other crazy shit that goes along with doing serious business with an unsavory dude. LT (from the ’92 joint, whose name we never actually learn) does more drugs more frequently and gets in over his head with a gargantuan gambling debt of $120,000 by the end. So in one sense McDonagh takes his illegal activities to the next level but LT gives less of a fuck about life. I’ll let you decide who takes the cake.
Cocaine seems to be the drug of choice for both guys but they also dabble in crack. McDonagh snorts heroin once but it’s accidental. Meanwhile LT freebases and shoots that shit. He also drinks a helluva lot which is something we never see McDonagh do strangely enough. Maybe it’s because his father is an alcoholic and he decided that’s the one drug he won’t touch. To round it out McDonagh does some painkillers (for his medically diagnosed bad back) and smokes some weed. LT doesn’t do either of those. It feels like he grew beyond pills and pot a long time ago. I mean this guy does coke, crack, booze and heroin all in one goddamn day. Look, McDonagh ain’t no lightweight but we never see him roll as fucking hard as that.
McDonagh actually goes through with solving the crime that we’re presented with towards the beginning. Ok, it’s pretty half assed but he does do it nonetheless. LT doesn’t do any real police work at all. This is particularly interesting because he sorta makes the appearance that he’s on the job only to take advantage of the situation. Like he inserts himself into an investigation of a crime scene only because he wants to steal the kilo of coke that’s there. Or he pretends to run down some guy but then when they duck into an apartment building they make a crack and coke exchange. The only genuine police work LT does is cuff the rapists he’s supposed to be looking for the entire time (of course he promptly lets them go shortly thereafter). But he only finds them in the end because a deus ex machina woman shows up and tells him where the assholes are.
McDonagh fires his gun only once in the whole movie and it’s a warning shot to prevent a dude from running away while McDonagh fucks the guy’s girlfriend in a parking lot. LT fires twice. Once is a warning shot as well to stop two thieves from continuing to lie about stealing money from a bodega (LT naturally wants the cash for himself). The other is when he loses yet another giant bet on a baseball game and shoots his car radio out in frustration. People on the street rightfully start to stare at him with concern. The scene is then so wonderfully concluded with LT engaging the siren and flooring it to make it look like there’s a police emergency while cursing at the dead radio.
This next one’s real obvious but I’ll go through it anyway. POCNO has an unmistakable comedic tone, especially towards the end. Lieutenant is much more serious. There are funny moments but I think they’re semi-unintentional. Director Abel Ferrara (King of New York, The Addiction) knew he was making an over the top movie and whenever you’re conscious of that there’s going to be an unavoidable amusing tinge to the material. For example the sheer number and vastness of crimes LT commits is kinda comical. And Harvey Keitel (Red Dragon) plays the role dead serious which adds some humor as well. He pushes the extreme irony of the bad cop situation all the way to hell and the exaggeration is funny in my opinion. The only part that might’ve been flat out played for a laugh is the weird ass airplane thing Keitel does with his arms spread out while squeaking some high pitched mumbling. Oh and he’s completely naked and high as a motherfucker too, almost forgot to mention that. POCNO on the other hand is downright hilarious not only because of the exorbitant drug use but also because Nicolas Cage (Red Rock West) was allowed to roam free with the unabashed character and take on the role as he saw fit. In other words a mega-actor’s paradise. On top of this director Werner Herzog (Nosferatu the Vampyre) let himself indulge in whatever harebrained ideas he came up with. To an extent they were deliberately going for funny which they make work. They tempered the material just right by taking an otherwise serious script and putting it through the lens of a dark wit.
Lieutenant doesn’t have much of a supporting cast. All of the characters besides LT have minuscule screen time and don’t even impact the story until the very end. POCNO has plenty of supporting players that do a fantastic job at rounding out the gritty world McDonagh traverses. There are a bunch of strange actors in this but the three with the biggest roles are Eva Mendes (2 Fast 2 Furious) as McDonagh’s drug addicted hooker girlfriend, Xzibit (xXx: State of the Union) as the drug lord McDonagh goes into business with and Val Kilmer (Batman Forever) as McDonagh’s shady partner. I personally would’ve liked to have seen more Kilmer because he has a boatload of charisma but nevertheless it’s good to see him pop up.
In terms of cinematography Lieutenant is down and dirty. It’s not documentary-like but it’s intimate and shot very well. There’s tactful editing too that likes to hold on the very moments LT is hitting the euphoria of whatever drug he’s taking. Pile on the almost claustrophobic feeling of being stuck in the nighttime or dark enclosed spaces most of the time and you got yourself some excellent atmosphere. However, POCNO isn’t to be outdone. It has a slicker visual style but that glossy shiny veneer somehow makes me feel grosser and not better about what I’m looking at. There are also a lot of great subtle camera movements thrown in. Most of the shots have some sort of pan or zoom happening to give a somewhat floaty dreamlike vibe. Both films have some great cinematography, it’s just a matter of what you prefer.
The soundtrack to POCNO is very percussive which I like but overall it’s too generic to stick in my memory. Lieutenant doesn’t have a soundtrack exactly. There’s that one song that’s played towards the beginning and at the end, “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace, but other than that it’s the sounds of the streets. And oh alright, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo ranting about the Mets over the intro credits is priceless. If you don’t know him he was a New York sports radio talk show host in the late 80’s and 90’s infamous for getting unconscionably riled up about everything, but mostly sports.
When it comes down to it I definitely like Lieutenant more between the two but it’s the nastier one for sure. POCNO is more accessible with the lighter tone (relatively speaking) and more traditional structure. But that original hits me harder. And yea I’ll admit I have a bit of a bias due to the NYC setting. I still haven’t been to NOLO. Maybe one day. Anyway here’s the weird bit though, these two movies have that Alien and Aliens effect on me. Lieutenant is the better picture but most times I’d probably rather watch POCNO just like with Alien and Aliens respectively due to its easier going attitude. Plus the hallucinatory crooning iguana scene as well as “shoot him again, his soul is still dancing” are some of the most sublimely trippy/silly things ever to be put to film.
A buddy of mine pointed me to an article recently about the making of POCNO and it was a cool read. I encourage you all to check it out. Screenwriter William M. Finkelstein (L.A. Law, NYPD Blue) did not originally write a Bad Lieutenant script but it morphed into that. He eventually came to think of the premise as a potential franchise like James Bond where you have different actors in the lead role, different locales, very similar but different enough plots, specific elements that get repeated and so on. That sounds fucking fantastic to me but I don’t think most of the world would be into it. I think we can all agree it’s crazy enough that this idea got reimagined once already.
But that article made me want to revisit these films again to try to figure out why they’re so intriguing. I suppose a big part of it is the wild abandon with which the characters live life. They don’t give a fuck about any goddamn thing and for a moment I’m living vicariously through them. On the surface it would be incredible to feel that free. But these guys aren’t free. They’re shackled by drug addiction and constantly having to cover up one lie and deception after another. They also dig themselves such a deep gambling hole that it becomes seemingly impossible for them to climb out of it. The captivation of how anyone could live like this, always wasted, always dishonest, always impulsive, is itself addicting. How much further down the rabbit hole can they go? What will they do next for drugs, money or pleasure? A character this excessive, but who can and does exist in the real world, is exciting and frightening at the same time.
These movies do what the best of ‘em do, they stir up a multitude of emotions and the cocktail they make is unique to that viewing experience. A cop is supposed to be the definition of a good guy but when he does all of this really bad shit it twists that notion in a disturbing and sick way. It’s also been done a million times in stories throughout the years but that’s why it’s a classic setup. That dichotomy is always stunning, as well as thought provoking, to soak up. These two films are some of the best that idea’s ever been done.
You know, the more I think about it these Lieutenants aren’t so bad. In fact they’re pretty damn good. (Ok, I deserve a trip to the penalty box for that one)