The first thing you need to know about Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is that director Werner Herzog had never seen the Abel Ferrera original. This little fact informs the viewing of the rest of the film, which barely acknowledges the original’s genre trappings. Herzog hasn’t crafted a very good police story, and shows no interest in doing so. Instead, he takes the concept presented in the title and runs with it, creating a delicious black comedy that parlays with the language of loneliness in a broken down society. With Nicolas Cage in a terrifically unhinged performance, Bad Lieutenant is outright weird and fantastically enjoyable.
Lieutenant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) is a good cop with a lot of bad habits. Chronic back pain has him addicted to all sorts of drugs. He shakes down the clients of his escort girlfriend. Most of his money is tied up in gambling debt. And he’ll take advantage of anybody who can get him what he wants. He’s investigating the brutal murder of five Senegalese immigrants, the case taking him further down the world of drugs, while the rest of his habits quickly catch up to him. But even as he spirals deeper into his self-destruction, McDonagh finds the answers that he needs, and nothing will stop him from doing his job.
Those looking for a compelling whodunit won’t find it here. Herzog isn’t all that interested in developing the procedural elements of the story, leaving the crime element of this police film rather underdeveloped. In its place, we have a thorough dissection of a man driven by inhumanity to become inhuman himself. The movie shows us a world in decay, where even the best of cops are willing to look the other way to achieve some measure of justice. In this, our hero is the greatest of them all, having fully submerged himself in the flood of immorality that surged into his city. The movie goes way over-the-top, but it never loses its connection with the humanity of its characters, the craziness simply an indicator of the profound loneliness that such a lack of ethics might bring. Herzog simply lets the insanity play out, his camera as loose and zany as anything going on in the film. He indulges in absurd sequences that offer us a look into the perspective of our drug-addled lieutenant, allowing us to experience a drug trip through the eyes of an imaginary iguana.
It’s crazy stuff, and if it weren’t Nicolas Cage in front of the camera, it probably wouldn’t have worked. Cage is often a difficult proposition, his natural bug-eyed demeanor and general propensity for screaming lines often making him a tough choice for leading man. But Bad Lieutenant gives him a proper outlet for his tendencies, and as McDonagh, Cage lets loose a beautifully insane performance. He staggers through the entire film with a crooked spine, pulls out an electric shaver while yelling at an old lady, and smiles dreamily at his hallucinations. Cage matches the movie’s insanity scene for scene, but still leaves enough room for pathos when it calls for it. This is a role that Cage was meant to play, but every unhinged second of it can be pretty delightful.
Herzog’s lack of interest towards the police elements of the film does weaken it overall, the investigative sequences pulling down the pace of the film as they drag on with little consequence or action. But even then, Cage will pull something absurd out of his bag of tricks, or Herzog will just shift our attention to something unforgettably weird. It certainly isn’t for everyone, and fans looking for a more straightforward police story will likely be flummoxed. This movie is all about Nicolas Cage in his natural environment, bug-eyed and tweaking, screaming at old ladies because he can. That’s the joy of this film.