The pairing of Nicolas Cage, one of the world's most out-there actors, with Werner Herzog, cinema's reigning madman-visionary, is a match made in looney-tunes heaven. "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," their first movie together, does not disappoint. It's definitely the best actor-director fit since – well, since Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski.
Critics who complain that this movie is a great big mess aren't wrong, exactly. But the messiness is what makes it so excitingly oddball. If it wasn't "too much" it wouldn't be enough. Cage plays a New Orleans cop who, because of an injured back, is addicted to Vicodin and cocaine. Investigating a mob-style rub-out of a Senegalese immigrant family, he sinks deeper and deeper into a morass mostly of his own making. Swaggering around in a bulky suit with a big gun tucked into the front of his trousers, Cage's Lt. Terence McDonagh becomes increasingly unhinged as gambling debts and gangland threats pile up.
He turns into a walking pharmacy and yet, despite it all, or perhaps because of it, he's a fearless criminal investigator. The fact that he occasionally hallucinates on the job is just an occupational hazard. For us, it's a boon. I ask you: In what other movie are you going to find singing iguanas?
Herzog's film has virtually no connection to Abel Ferrara's 1992 cult movie "Bad Lieutenant" starring Harvey Keitel. It's a film noir shot mostly in daylight. Post-Katrina New Orleans is employed in the same way that the seedy nabes of Los Angeles often were in the classic noirs – as an emblem of deep-set depravity. The rot brings out everybody's worst impulses. Terence commits despicable acts in the service of rooting out even more despicable perpetrators. His moral compass spins like a top but at least he has a compass. Most of the bad guys he encounters, from the low-level hood Justin (played with scene-stealing panache by Shea Whigham) to the drug kingpin Big Fate (rapper Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner), are conscienceless.
Terence isn't exactly the classic Philip Marlowe-style gumshoe untainted by the corruptions of the jungle. He's tainted all right, but down deep he's really a crackbrained do-gooder. (He severely hurt his back rescuing a criminal locked inside a flooded jail cell.) What Terence is really looking for is salvation. The problem is, he's looking for it in all the wrong places.
This is Herzog's first Hollywood film shot in a large American city, and he turns New Orleans into a phantasmagoria that matches Terence's wacky mood swings. The more manic he gets, the more slapstick he is. All sorts of marvelous actors with great faces, including Irma P. Hall, Brad Dourif, and Jennifer Coolidge, turn up in small roles, and they give Herzog's potpourri a pungency. The film is jazzy, a bit like Robert Altman's neonoir "The Long Goodbye," without having much of anything to do with jazz. It's jazzy in spirit – Cage and Herzog are riffing off each other, seeing just how far they can go and still remain in control.
Cage has appeared over the years in far too many empty commercial vehicles but whenever he really puts himself heart and soul into one of his performances, as in "Vampire's Kiss," "Leaving Las Vegas," or "Adaptation," he is peerlessly daring. In "Bad Lieutenant," you can see how, in moments, he's astonishing himself, and yet he never breaks character. How could he? The character he's playing is so vertiginous and chameleonlike that just about anything goes. The marvel of Cage's performance is that, somehow, it's all of a piece. That's the marvel of the movie, too. This is one fever dream you'll remember whole. Grade: A- (Rated R for drug use and language throughout, some violence and sexuality.)