Because he makes so many bad films, we forget how well Nicolas Cage plays crazy. Luckily director Werner Herzog knows exactly how much to let chaos—and Cage—reign. Their Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans ends up greater than its wild and sleazy parts. In fact it’s a damn near masterpiece of madness.
To be fair, a lot of that is deserved. The one-time Oscar-winner’s gone from Leaving Las Vegas to yee-hah action trash like The Rock and Con Air, the shallow paydays of the National Treasure franchise, and whacked-out crap such as Neil LaBute’s hilariously wretched Wicker Man remake, the flame-out of Ghost Rider, and the so-odd-it’s-almost-watchable Bangkok Dangerous. Sure he still rings the bell from time to time in stuff like Adaptation and World Trade Center. But even when one of his performances teeters on the precipice of is-it-great-or-goofy (See: Knowing) the question remains, “What is Nicolas Cage’s deal?”
However, when properly harnessed, Cage’s brand of bonkers can be awesome to behold—think back to Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart, or Face/Off. And now here’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans to give us one helluva reminder of what Mr. H.I. McDunnough can do when he puts both his fright-wig and whirling mind to it.
New Orleans police officer Terrence McDonagh doesn’t start out completely bad in this re-visiting of Abel Ferrara’s powerfully disturbing (and infamously NC-17) 1992 Bad Lieutenant (that starred all of Harvey Keitel). But when Katrina comes along and knocks down the levees, it batters Terrence’s moral dams as well. His back injured during the flood, the newly promoted lieutenant finds himself hunched and limping, getting by on a growing diet of legal and illegal drugs, increasingly procured though questionable means. This self-medication isn’t doing his judgment any favors, either on the beat with partner Val Kilmer or with his bookie (Brad Dourif). The hurricane may have passed, but drugs, debts, issues with his high-class hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes doing terrific work), and a multiple-murder investigation aimed at a drug lord (rapper Xzibit) are forming a perfect storm around McDonagh.
What makes it all work is that this new Bad Lieutenant is directed by the great Werner Herzog, one of the few ‘70s cinematic wild men still pushing what cinema can be and do. (His films include classics in the exploration of obsession like Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, recent documentary quests for the vanishing point of harsh nature and human self-determination such as Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, and 2006’s criminally overlooked Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale and Steve Zahn as Vietnam POWs.) Cage has worked with some daring film makers—his uncle Francis, Scorsese, the Coens, Lynch, DePalma, Jonze, Stone, and, um, Bay. But pairing his bug-eyed intensity with Herzog’s German eye for insanity in a film about a good cop going, going, gone mad is one of those dream match-ups you can’t believe no one had thought of before—like taco pizzas or mega-sharks and giant octopuses.
Where the 1992 version was about a desperate grasp for redemption, Herzog and screenwriter William Finkelstein have little interest in a spiritual fall—their version is more like a NASCAR crash and just as guiltily exhilarating. Still, some trappings remain: non-stop drugs, desperate bets (this time it’s LSU instead of the Mets), and lurid abuse of the badge’s power for both half-way righteous and completely depraved purposes. Herzog takes his time letting things marinate in sleazy post-Katrina New Orleans, a city cracked open to let the swampy animal kingdom in and the human beasts out. The lieutenant’s demons take forms reptilian and aquatic, and eventually the film’s acid-fever has conjured a baby-gator-cam, iguanas that seem to croon “Release Me,” and yes, a break-dancing soul spinning at the end of Terrence’s lucky crack pipe. (This is a film so unhinged that Dourif plays one of its more stable characters.)
However, for every bit McDonough and the film appear to be losing their mutual minds, there’s a Teutonic discipline behind the gonzo. This is film making and storytelling far out at the end of the tether, but Herzog keeps it all in orbit. With Cage replacing Klaus Kinski as his unhinged muse, the director’s tapped into a rolling deranged energy— Bad Lieutenant: POCNO becomes a dark-comic travelogue through the corrupt and rotting heart of the American frontier spirit: A drug-sick Marshall Dillon consumed by the spirits of Richard Nixon and Richard the Third.
This is no “faux-seedy” cop thriller with likable stars perfectly lit against picturesque backdrops. (For starters, Herzog cares little about the actual crime being solved.) Cage starts out looking like hell and decays further into a horror-movie specimen as the film around him gets dirtier, sweatier, and more vile. His nasal gibbering becoming more Peggy Sue Got Married with every fix, the actor lurches through a landscape Tennessee Williams couldn’t have imagined without access to a meth lab.
It’s a bravado performance, made all the more impressive—and fun—because it’s always this close to self-parody. But as out of control as Terrence spins, Herzog, Cage and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans stay focused at the edge. The result is a film that does such a good job at behaving badly it swings all the way ‘round to near-greatness.