The last shot of “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” has Nicolas Cage with his back against the wall of an aquarium tank, letting out a slight guffaw before the screen turns black. Werner Herzog’s explanation? Clearly, it’s a reference to the final self-portraits of Rembrandt and Goya, who immortalized themselves laughing at their own reflections. “It has such a mysterious chuckle at the end,” Herzog told the crowd at the Elgin Theatre. “You don’t know where it comes from.”
There’s little use in explaining most of what transpires in “Bad Lieutenant.” It has little to do with Abel Ferrara’s film of the same title, or good taste, or reality in general. But getting away from reality is often what the movies are all about, and in that sense, Herzog and Cage have made a film for the ages, the kind of spectacular accident that happens when producers sense a remake cash grab, an eccentric movie star on the decline wants a payday, and a world-renowned filmmaker cares just enough to try to make things interesting, but not enough to give it a professional sheen. (Herzog bragged in Toronto that he brought the film $2.6 million under budget, and said “the unpleasant, funny result is Avi Lerner, the producer of the last ‘Rambo’, wants to marry me now.”)
You’ve probably seen most of the highlights from “Bad Lieutenant,” if you’ve seen the massively popular international trailer for the film online — the scene where Cage’s Lt. Terence McDonagh cuts off an old woman’s oxygen supply for a confession, his “lucky crack pipe,” the many iguanas that populate the picture and of course, the already legendary line “Shoot him again; his soul is still dancing,” when Cage intuits a dead gangster breakdancing. Placed in their original context, these scenes don’t really make much more sense, as McDonagh zips and zags woozily across post-Katrina New Orleans, shaking down teens for cocaine and heroin to use himself and figuring out ways to get five grand to pay off his bookie and another 50 grand for a group of gangsters who want to kill his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes). McDonagh’s solutions always seem to come in the form of people he can bully — he winds up taking a percentage from the drug kingpin he’s investigating for murder, and when he comes across a college football player, he asks him to throw a game.
This might all sound well and good for a police procedural, and since the film is shot with the same production values as a Cannon film from ’80s, the wild distractions away from a thin plotline don’t seem out of place. But five minutes in, when Cage begins to complain that he won’t dive into a flooded prison to rescue someone because he wants to protect his $55 Swiss cotton underpants, you know all bets are off. Herzog said during the Q&A that he inspired Cage with a Bavarian saying, “There will be many moments you have to turn the hog loose.” And Cage goes whole hog. He gives complete conviction to lines like “I’m trying to be courteous, but that’s getting in the way of my being effective” as he threatens an old woman at a retirement home. Though his Bad Lieutenant has his shoulders arched as though he’s merely a hanger for a cheap suit, Cage’s McDonagh isn’t afraid to wave his extremely long gun in anybody’s face.
Herzog isn’t afraid to wave his camera around, either. He spoke with obvious delight about how he insisted on shooting the non-sequitur scenes of iguanas on the side of the road or sitting in on a sting operation (prompting Cage to comment, “What are these fucking iguanas doing on my coffee table?” to a bemused Val Kilmer). During the Q & A, the director also touched on his feud with original “Bad Lieutenant” director Abel Ferrara, once again saying that he had never seen any of Ferrara’s films, but compared the situation to kicking up dirt at a baseball game — “otherwise, it’s not worth the price of admission.”