Marred by a clichéd story but elevated by some terrific actor-director sync, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” is an insanely entertaining crime drama. Credit filmmaker Werner Herzog and actor Nicolas Cage for keeping you captivated, even if you’re shaking your head.
The film isn’t a remake of Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” the remarkably bold (by 1992 standards) drama with a redemptive protagonist wracked with Catholic guilt.
It’s a nutty trip through a pocket of the human-nature swamp guided by Herzog, who, in addition to his distinctive documentaries (“Grizzly Man” among them), makes big-star dramas that similarly reflect his interest in extreme personalities and places.
The setting is post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, where a swimming snake leads things off and the skies are an apocalyptic shade of gray. Clearly, old codes of decency don’t apply.
Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a detective who, after an early scene that establishes his essential decency — he saves a prisoner from drowning — becomes hooked on the Vicodin he consumes for back pain, eventually leading to a heroin addiction.
His habit, compounded by gambling debts, prompts egregiousness: pocketing dope from the police property room, robbing trendy nightclubbing couples of substances, or, in a particularly crazed episode, temporarily depriving an old woman of her oxygen.
The police-procedural element centers on an investigation into a massacre involving a drug kingpin (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner). We also get a love story between Terence and call girl Frankie (Eva Mendes).
Scripted by big-screen newcomer William Finkelstein, the story is thin and generic. The romance lacks sizzle; Mendes is used mostly for glamour.
Yet, we’re still getting Herzog as we expect him to be and Cage as we want him to be, and the result is an inspired, bonkers movie that, for sheer entertainment, delivers.
Herzog, who doesn’t seem capable of acting as a mere hired hand, eclipses the screenplay’s every formulaic turn with singularly dark, comic and zany bits — a musical iguana moment, for starters.
Cage, meanwhile — in welcome unrestrained, nonblockbuster vein — hooks into Herzog’s mad-scientist wavelength and triumphs. This isn’t a movie to take dead-seriously, and when Cage’s Terence is cackling at his own ridiculousness or showing off his “lucky crack pipe,” among other outrages, he’s dramatically compelling and sometimes perversely funny. Occasionally, as when he shares with Frankie his childhood pirate fantasies, he’s moving as well.
The able supporting cast — which includes Val Kilmer as Terence’s police partner and the wonderful Jennifer Coolidge as Terence’s beer-drinking stepmom — sadly has little to do.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner, Val Kilmer
Written by William Finkelstein
Directed by Werner Herzog
Running time: 2 hours 1 minute