You’ll go a long way to find anything playing right now that’s as downright peculiar as Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orelans. Let’s start with the fact that it’s called The Bad Lieutenant, which suggests that it’s somehow related to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992). Problem is the connection is fairly tenuous. Perhaps that’s the reason, since it somehow would fit the utter perversity of Herzog’s vision.
Nicolas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, the bad lieutenant of the title. When the film starts—the camera following a snake through the rising floodwaters of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina—he’s merely a sergeant and maybe not so bad. In fact, he somewhat foolishly—at the risk of his $55 Swiss cotton underpants—jumps into the water that threatens to engulf a prisoner, Chavez (Nick Gomez), who didn’t get evacuated in time. We don’t learn the fate of those underpants till much later in the film, but the rescue does result in a spinal injury (that often causes Terence to lurch about like a Richard III impersonator), a painkiller addiction and a promotion to lieutenant. Whether it’s the injury, the escalating drug habit, the increase in power, the decay and corruption that surrounds him or the combination of all these things that turns Terence “bad” is never directly addressed. For that matter, there’s some question as to just how bad Terence even is.
There’s no question that Terence operates outside the law—and indeed outside the dictates of anything resembling conventional morality. He abuses his power; he steals drugs from the evidence room; he’s perfectly capable of manufacturing evidence and brutalizing a suspect—or even a possible witness. His girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), is a high-price hooker, but neither that, nor her equally extreme drug problem, bothers Terence much—as long as her customers pay up and don’t abuse her in any way. But then you look at the world he inhabits with its nonstop corruption and you look at his background—which includes an abusive alcoholic father (Tom Bower, Appaloosa) and the old man’s beer-sodden bimbo girlfriend (Jennifer Coolidge)—and Terence McDonagh starts to make a certain kind of twisted sense. He almost might be a slightly more admirable version of Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil rethought for the 21st century.
The film’s central plot—which seems to go by the wayside part-way through, but only seems to—concerns the investigation of the gangland-execution-style murder of an entire family. The crime is clearly linked to a drug lord known as “Big Fate” (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner), but not only is the man seemingly untouchable, there’s not a living soul willing to testify against him. The question becomes how to get at him—a question compounded by Terence’s inability to stay out of trouble himself and simply deal with the myriad curveballs that come his way.
None of this touches on Cage’s performance, which is never less than fascinatingly over the top. It doesn’t matter whether he’s terrorizing elderly women in a nursing home, hunting for not very innocent victims to abuse for the fun of it, scoring drugs or getting weirdly misty-eyed over his thwarted childhood dreams, Cage slides in and out of each move without missing a beat—and some of the beats Herzog wants him to hit are pretty extreme. We’re talking fantasies about iguanas (with lengthy iguana footage—credited to Herzog himself—set to “Release Me” on the sound track) and exhorting a gunman to shoot a dead man again. Why? “His soul is still dancing,” claims Terence—and with an iguana no less. It’s hallucinatory in a way we rarely see in movies. And Cage and Herzog pull it off.
I can’t say a great deal more about the plot without spoiling things, but I will note that when I got to the film’s increasingly bizarre final scenes, I joked, “It’s a tale of virtue rewarded.” After I’d said that I started to wonder if that wasn’t exactly what The Bad Lieutenant actually is—in its own Herzogian manner. Then again, maybe that’s just me. Need I add, the film is not for every taste? Probably not. For those who like their movies on the daring and strange side, this one’s a keeper. Rated R for drug use and language throughout, some violence and sexuality.