Envy me, because Werner Herzog’s “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” is more fun to write about than it is to watch, and it is barrel-of-monkeys fun to watch. Everything about it is wrong, so wrong that categorizing it that way is meaningless, but wrong nonetheless, down to its title (that awkward “the” on the film’s opening title card, that anachronistic and irrelevant “port of call,” the subtitle itself, erroneously suggesting sequel-hood, etc.).
Of course, the film has no relation to the 1992 Abel Ferrara film, except it involves a police detective who is “bad,” insofar as he dopes, gambles and isn’t very effective as a cop. In the first film, the character’s self-immolation was an existential passion; here it’s… I don’t know what it is. Herzog was brought on as a director-for-hire (which is very wrong, in the grand cultural scheme of things), after screenwriter William Finkelstein (“Doogie Howser,” “NYPD Blue”) was enlisted to sorta, kinda, remake Ferrara’s film, the producers’ initial intention. Star Nicolas Cage decided it would take place in New Orleans because he likes the city. One head-shaker after another. One imagines that by the time Val Kilmer was signed on for a worthless supporting straight-man part, the whole project was a giant rolling snowball of wrongness, headed inexorably toward us.
Oh, but if only movies were tidy little jigsaw puzzles, the assembly of which is either complete or not, rather than, sometimes, messy, impulsive, psyche-eating juggernauts within which visionaries, imps and opportunists have a unstable chemical romance and burn the place to the ground. Herzog’s long and great career, after all, can be seen as one long timeline of deliberate and horrifying accident-making, and so in that sense, if few others, “Bad Lieutenant” is quintessentially Herzogian. It’s the first time in the man’s fictional films we’ve smelt the singed carbon of self-parody, or at least tongue-in-cheekness, but in Werner’s world, the film itself can be scanned as another absurd, grotesque pageant, like the procession in “Even Dwarfs Started Small,” or Bokassa’s gold-plated ceremonies in “Echoes of a Somber Empire.”
Amid the chicanery — which only begins with an impulsive leap into Katrina floodwaters, and crests, perhaps, in the hallucinated presence of fat iguanas at the scene of a stakeout — there’s the brittle skeleton of a standard TV police procedural plotline, tracking down drug-cartel killers, by way of interrogations and evidence-hunting. Forget it, because although Herzog couldn’t quite, he obviously sighed with relief whenever he concocted a means to detour away from Finkelstein’s script (the iguanas, snapping at the camera to the tune of bluesman Sonny Terry’s “Old Lost John,” as Cage glares at them from the background, serve such a purpose).
The remaining 75% of the movie is comprised of the pas de deux between Cage and Herzog, as the two try almost anything that pops into their heads. Cage’s Terence McDonagh begins with a back injury, which nets him a Vicodin habit, which quickly graduates to crack and smack — hilariously, this heavy load of recreationals does not represent a “Leaving Las Vegas” death wish, but is merely a comically spiraling addiction scenario, fueled by itself, not by primal angst. (“I did what I thought was coke,” he explains woozily to hooker girlfriend Eva Mendes, “but it was heroin and I have to be at work in an hour.”)
McDonagh isn’t terribly irate about anything, and he doesn’t spend much time loathing himself — he’s just a dolt, a sloppy cop more worried about his access to his department’s property room and its stashes of powder (a great running gag) than his job or, really, anyone else’s well-being. Herzog never before seemed to be a filmmaker interested in the drama of addiction and recovery, and here he’s not either: he’s just letting Cage’s mayhem play out like any natural force run amok, as if the Hollywood filmmaking machine and the ego fireworks of one of the world’s most bankable stars is a warped spectacle on the level of the dancing chicken in “Stroszek.”
But even that doesn’t “work” — we know how to watch a high-wire, no-rules actory tear. Cage is strangely subdued most of the time, and never approaches the incendiary lunacy of his earlier peak moments, in “Vampire’s Kiss,” “Peggy Sue Got Married” or “Wild at Heart.” Have so many stolid action movies tamped down his pilot light? Beyond an early conniption in a pharmacy, and a slew of late scenes in which crack reduces him to a yowling mess, McDonagh manages to keep his behavior under check, despite eventually lurching around with a rather Karloffian glower when having a hard time finding a fix, speaking as if he has a mouthful of bad dentures built from soft wax. For insurance, the film is stocked with other Industry eccentrics and inebriates, from Kilmer to Fairuza Balk, Michael Shannon, Brad Dourif and Jennifer Coolidge, and the vague conjunctions with David Lynch’s filmography seem organic and inevitable. (Lynch produced Herzog’s next film, “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” with several members of “Bad Lieutenant”‘s cast.)
Herzog has never been deft at comedy, and has rarely tried, and so this film has the ramshackle air of one made in an experimental spree, strapping a camera to a crocodile for a roadside P.O.V. (this after a lovely tableau of crushed croc roadkill, a blood trail and a car wreck), letting Cage frame out his scenes as if he were a stand-up comic imitating Klaus Kinski in Herzog’s “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” envisioning a drug thug’s post-shootout “soul” breakdancing, and so, crazily, on. In the most trivial ways, “Bad Lieutenant” is an anemic shadow of Ferrara’s knucklebuster, but for the most part, it is an animal apart, bristling with a set of conflicting and half-baked agendas, and as spellbinding as a Ferris wheel coming off its pylons.