Credit: Nicholas Cage as Terence McDonagh

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Directed by Werner Herzog | Written by William Finkelstein

When I first read about Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, it was described as a sequel to Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult favorite about a drug- and gambling-addicted police detective in New York City. When I next read about it, it was described as a remake. Now that I’ve seen it, I can report that it’s neither. Directed by the irrepressible Werner Herzog—who claims he’s never seen Ferrara’s movie—Port of Call New Orleans plays as if a different filmmaker had been given the same basic premise and sent off to another city to turn it into a movie. Like the character played by Harvey Keitel in the first release, Herzog’s protagonist (Nicolas Cage) is a cop whose privileged position gives him the opportunity to vacuum up every drug known to man. But Bad Lieutenant was a Scorsese-style exercise in macho histrionics and tortured Catholicism; Port of Call New Orleans, whose William Finkelstein script Herzog revised as he went along, is more like a dark comedy, powerfully alive to the hothouse culture and relaxed morality of its title town.

I know plenty of people who like Bad Lieutenant, but I don’t know many who take it at face value. Keitel’s cop—referred to only as “the lieutenant”—is a fallen Catholic assigned to investigate the brutal rape of a nun inside a church. As shot by Ferrara, the attack is a confused cocktail of prurience and spiritual outrage. A statue of the Virgin Mary is tipped onto the floor, and there’s a quick cut to an actor playing Jesus, who roars with pain on the cross. Yet the rape plays out under kinky red lights, with a gratuitous crotch shot as the two punks pull down the nun’s panties. After bending her over the altar and taking turns, they violate her with a crucifix and steal a chalice for good measure. When Keitel visits this poor woman in the hospital, he spies her laid out nude on the examining table, and in the person of actress Frankie Thorn she’s the hottest nun in the movies since Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette.

Keitel’s cop is outraged by the crime and shocked into reexamining his conscience by the nun’s pious decision to forgive and shield her two assailants. The movie reaches its thematic climax with Keitel on his hands and knees in the church, hooting and howling in anguish as a mute Jesus stands before him. But that’s not the scene people bring up when they talk about Bad Lieutenant. The scene everyone remembers is the one where Keitel pulls over two high school girls who’ve borrowed their father’s car to sneak out to a club. At first Keitel gives them the usual hassle, demanding their license and registration and asking where they’ve been. But once he’s got something to blackmail them with his comments start to get sexually suggestive, until finally he whips his dick out on the street and masturbates frantically while glaring at the two girls. Bad, bad lieutenant—bad!

Herzog may be one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, but he doesn’t seem to take himself all that seriously: five years ago he played himself in the absurd mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness, which satirizes his reputation as an intrepid adventurer. So I’m not really surprised that, after a career heavy with historical dramas and globe-trotting documentaries, he’s decided to experiment with something as crass as a cop thriller. Cage suggested moving the story from New York to New Orleans, an idea embraced by the producers for its substantial tax breaks and by Herzog for its artistic potency in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The breakdown of order following the storm lends currency to the idea of a cop who can’t control himself, and Herzog revels in the city’s polyglot, premodern ambience. Cutting some of Finkelstein’s scenes and inventing numerous new ones, he’s managed to take a shamelessly commercial project and open it up into a Herzog film.

The police procedural plot is generic at best: Terence McDonagh (Cage), recently promoted to lieutenant for his heroism during the flood, catches a horrific murder case in which a family of Senegalese immigrants, including two children, have been executed in their home for encroaching on a drug dealer’s turf. (Near the body of a little girl, the detective finds an exotic fish in a glass of water and a heartbreaking poem on loose-leaf paper: “My friend is a fish / His fin is a cloud / He see me when I sleep.”) Witnesses refuse to testify for fear of retribution, the grinning drug kingpin shows up at police headquarters with his attorney to rub the cops’ noses in his impregnability, the DA tells the cops they need some hard evidence to make the case, etc, etc. We’ve all seen this one a million times.

But Herzog, the perpetual stranger in a strange land, keeps indulging his fascination with the local customs and curiosities. The scene in which McDonagh is moved by grieving survivors at the family’s funeral is familiar stuff, but it opens with a West African minister ceremonially swigging booze and spitting it into the air over each casket. When McDonagh shows up at a freeway off-ramp, the site of a car crash, Herzog presents the scene from the perspective of a little alligator hiding in the grass at the side of the road. Later, when McDonagh arrives at a stakeout stoned out of his mind, Herzog parks a pair of iguanas on a nearby table. (The other cops can’t see them, but McDonagh can.) He even gives the iguanas their own close-up, and they strut their stuff for the camera as Johnny Adams croons “Release Me” on the sound track and McDonagh grins like an idiot in the background.

Herzog deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the movie’s quality, but Port of Call New Orleans is also a comeback for Cage. He’s had a pretty bad run for the past few years—National Treasure, The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider, Next—but in this movie he’s pretty damn funny. Stoop-shouldered from a back injury he’s sustained in the opening scene, saucer-eyed from his epic drug intake, McDonagh is like Caliban with a badge. “Everything I take is prescription!” he insists to a fellow officer. “Except the heroin.” When he barges into a drugstore pharmacy to collect his pills and the security guard refuses to believe he’s a cop, McDonagh flashes the revolver he’s got stuck in his waistband and nonsensically demands, “What does that look like?” When his irate bookie shows up at the police station, badgering him for money in full view of his colleagues, McDonagh papers over the embarrassment with a transparent lie: “It’s OK—I’m a little late on my rent.” The other cops look at their desks in embarrassment.

Cage and Herzog, having used their clout to pump some much-needed production money into the blighted community, seem to have decided to leave the big messages to someone else and just enjoy themselves, as visitors to New Orleans are so often encouraged to do. As a result, Port of Call New Orleans drifts effortlessly into just the sort of dreaminess that Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant labors so hard to create. In the final shot, McDonagh sits on the floor in the Audubon Institute Aquarium of the Americas, silhouetted from behind by one of the tanks, with its luminous blue water and undulating sea beasts. Only Herzog could take something as soul deadening as a multiplex shoot-’em-up and turn it into a vehicle for wonder.