“Iguana / Alligator footage by Werner Herzog.”
This tidbit of information appears in the closing credits of Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, but it might more usefully have been conveyed in the opening titles, if only to give audiences a better idea of what’s in store. Though it borrows the first half of its name from Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film, and likewise tells the story of an out-of-control, drug-addicted cop, the movie is neither remake nor sequel; it’s a Herzogian exercise of another kind altogether. (Both directors have said they would have preferred the new film not be titled Bad Lieutenant at all, but Herzog was overridden by the producers, who envision a somewhat dubious franchise boost at the box office.)
In contrast to Ferrara’s pitiless redemption parable, Herzog offers dark comedy, an exaggerated exploration of what he calls “the bliss of evil.” The movie’s first shot, of a snake slithering sinuously through fetid water, is at once a metaphor for that evil and an inside joke, tweaking its own obviousness. You have to wait until later in the film for the alligator, which watches forlornly by the side of a highway where its mate has been run over, and the iguanas, which jitter on the screen to “Please Release Me.”
And then there are the bipedal reptiles. Central among these is New Orleans policeman Terence McDonagh, played with loopy intensity by Nicolas Cage. (Is it a coincidence that he essentially shares a surname with Cage’s inept stickup man in Raising Arizona? Another inside joke?) When we first encounter Terence, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he is a dutiful cop by the undemanding standards of the Big Easy. He and his partner (Val Kilmer) have been sent to check that all the prisoners are evacuated from a prison in which the flood waters continue to rise. When they find that one has been left behind, Terence, in contrast to said partner, chooses not to let him drown. This act of minimal heroism does not go unpunished, however: In addition to ruining his $50 Swiss underpants, Terence suffers a back injury he is assured will plague him for the rest of his life. Cue the Vicodin.
Flash forward six months, and Terence has moved on to harder stuff, which is to say pretty much anything he can get his hands on, whether through property-room larcenies or the shaking down of coke-addled clubbers. (Though he will later self-righteously declare, “Everything I take is prescription--except for the heroin,” this is not in fact true.) Throw in mounting gambling debts thanks to a bad eye for college football, a prostitute girlfriend being menaced by the mob (Eva Mendes), and a killer crack dealer he can’t seem to bring to justice (Xzibit), and our bad lieutenant is having a very bad week.
Herzog directs the film with ironic whimsy, mixing the understated and over-the-top in equal measure. Some scenes are filmed like a horror movie, with low angles and tracking shots that follow Cage as an organ thrums menacingly; others are more openly playful. But all teeter precariously--and by design--on the fence between awesome and awful. That the film tumbles frequently into the former category and rarely into the latter is a testament to Herzog’s dexterity: Making a bad movie this good is harder than it looks.
He is aided considerably by Cage, who mines the reservoir of repressed mania and offbeat charisma that made him such an interesting young actor in the 1980s and early 1990s. I would say this is his best performance since 2002’s Adaptation, if that didn’t seem like damning with faint praise: No star working today chooses his roles with more emphatic disregard for quality. Canting his shoulders at a stiff angle and pursing his lips, Cage offers a portrait of a man out of kilter physically as well as morally. And if, on occasion, he overdoes it, well, in this context overdoing it is essentially the point of doing it at all. His bad lieutenant is the twelve-vehicle pileup of human car wrecks, an invitation to cinematic rubberneckers everywhere.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.