Not since Snakes On A Plane has the line between movie and Internet meme been as confused as it is with Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage’s remake of the Abel Ferrara shocker Bad Lieutenant. When the project was first announced at Cannes, it immediately triggered reaction along the lines of “What kind of crazy train wreck is that going to be?” And once the wondrously insane teaser trailer went viral, it turned into, “Oh, that kind of a crazy train wreck.” So what about the movie? Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans—the subtitle makes it charmingly unwieldy—is everything the trailer promised and so much more, a batty policier fueled by evocative local color and a sublimely deranged lead performance that recalls Herzog’s work with the wild-eyed Klaus Kinski. It’s not always easy to sort out the legitimately inspired touches from the merely campy ones, but the film has a deranged, go-for-broke spirit that makes such distinctions irrelevant.
Herzog claims he’s never seen the original film, and there’s little reason to doubt him: Other than Cage’s rank in the police force and a laundry list of abuses that include gambling, theft, cocaine and heroin addiction, and sexual shakedowns, the two films have little in common. The themes of Catholic guilt and redemption at the center of Ferrara’s version have been replaced by an explicitly comedic shaggy-dog detective story that tours the Katrina-ravaged neighborhoods of New Orleans. Adding plenty of other pharmaceuticals to a baseline of Vicodin, Cage’s unhinged sleuth investigates the drug-related murder of five Senegalese immigrants, with all roads leading to a kingpin named Big Fate (Xzibit).
Over a career that’s spanned four decades, Herzog has shown little interest in genre films, and Bad Lieutenant has the half-assed procedural elements of a straight-to-DVD thriller. (Herzog’s evident boredom may explain the genesis of a bizarre “iguana-cam” sequence.) But the film comes to life whenever Cage gets to holler and strut, which is often, and with props like an electric shaver and a “lucky crack pipe” in hand. Herzog also adds a lot of evocative touches on the periphery, clearly inspired by the setting. In perhaps the most decisive break from the Ferrara film, Bad Lieutenant isn’t tortured, but fun; Cage takes to sin like a pig to slop, and it’s a blast to watch him splash around in it.