This review only needs to consist of six words: Werner Herzog. Nicolas Cage. Bad Lieutenant. Not every one of those elements (with the possible exception of Herzog’s name) is enough to sell a movie on its own, but the combination? Most definitely. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Edward R. Pressman Films) isn’t really a remake of Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara’s 1992 exploration of a crooked cop’s journey through the depths of spiritual debasement. It’s more like a dream one might have after watching the original Bad Lieutenant, doing three lines of cocaine, staying up all night, and collapsing on some none-too-clean sheets in a seedy New Orleans motel. The main thing the two films share is a fascination with abjection—these aren’t just bad lieutenants, they’re baaaad lieutenants. It’s a fascination so extreme and so systematic that it exists at the permeable border between high drama and low comedy.
Ferrara’s cop, played with feral rage by Harvey Keitel, was a fallen Catholic in New York City. Herzog’s creation, Terence McDonagh, is less religious than his predecessor, and so is the movie. Instead of trying to solve the rape of a nun, McDonagh is investigating the mass murder of a Senegalese immigrant family. As the movie begins, McDonagh, already in deep gambling debt, sustains a back injury while saving a man from drowning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He gets hooked on painkillers after the accident, an addiction that soon leads to harder drugs. (While arresting a suspect for crack possession, McDonagh gets down to brass tacks: “Where’s the rock at? Come on, come on, who’s got the kibble?”) McDonagh also has a prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) whom he’s not above pimping out for spare cash.
A drug lord, played by the rapper Xzibit, is the prime suspect in the Senegalese murders, but he’s gone underground. There are witnesses to be interrogated and superiors to report to—superiors who are beginning to wonder why McDonagh is getting dunned by his bookie (a weirdly amiable Brad Dourif) at work. As a viewer, it’s best to let the procedural details wash around you like so much brackish swamp water and to experience Bad Lieutenant through the bloodshot eyes of its tripped-out hero. At one point, he thinks he sees a pair of iguanas that are invisible to the other cops in the room (but not to the audience, McDonagh’s partners in insanity). In what may be the most quotable of the many lines of dialogue destined for cult glory, Cage wonders aloud, “What the fuck are these iguanas doing on my coffee table?” The reptiles get a long handheld close-up, while on the soundtrack, Johnny Adams croons, “Please release me/ Let me go. …” What the fuck are those iguanas doing on his coffee table? Who knows? Maybe it’s just Herzog the nature documentarian ( Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World) indulging his fascination with nonhuman life-forms. But whatever it is, that moment is marvelous.
Since Nicolas Cage first peeked over the top of a shower curtain in Valley Girl, he’s been a one-of-a-kind presence on-screen. For all the terrible career choices he’s made—his drive to succeed as an action hero seems to come from someplace even deeper than the desire for a huge paycheck—Nic Cage is unparalleled when it comes to playing self-destructive loons, men so uncomfortable with life they want to shed their own skin. As in Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation, Cage’s performance is funny, haunting, and genuinely bizarre. He hunches. He winces. He cackles explosively. As his character gets more and more strung out, his voice changes, growing louder, more pinched and nasal. (Mercifully, he never attempts a New Orleans accent.) He’s forever inventing weird little bits of stage business: Before interrogating a witness, he takes an electric razor from his pocket and gives himself a five-second shave. Cage clearly enjoys the chance to play a role this over-the-top. “Right now I’m working on about an hour and a half’s sleep,” he warns a wheelchair-bound old woman before blocking off her breathing tube to maximize the effectiveness of his interrogation. But he also invests this doomed character with real pathos and never goes for deliberate camp. Whatever sick joke this movie’s telling, Cage is in on it.
Bad Lieutenant has an unpolished, almost amateurish rawness about it. The language of the crime thriller is clearly a foreign tongue to Herzog (though he’s working from a script by the veteran TV crime writer William Finkelstein), and the movie’s pacing is often erratic. A few really well-cast actors: Val Kilmer as McDonagh’s fellow bad cop, Jennifer Coolidge as his foulmouthed stepmother—are sadly underused. The movie may be too gritty for art-house audiences and too idiosyncratic for action fans looking for the next Gone in 60 Seconds. But it’s that neither-fish-nor-fowl quality that makes it so unsettlingly watchable. Though it was filmed on location in the ravaged city, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans isn’t particularly concerned with social commentary or local color. But like the water snake that slithers by during the opening credits or the baby crocodile from whose point of view we observe one roadside scene, this movie is a freaky little swamp thing.