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Wildness intact, ‘Bad Lieutenant’ returns

Director Werner Herzog, working from a William Finkelstein screenplay, has summoned the spirit of the original "Bad Lieutenant" while making something fresh and gloriously insane.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's post-Katrina New Orleans and there are snakes in the water — none bigger than Terence McDonagh, an exceptionally corrupt detective, who slinks through town snorting coke, smoking heroin, harassing women and brandishing a .44 Magnum stuffed in the front of his pants.

When a security guard finds McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) behind the pharmacist counter rooting around for his Vicodin prescription because he's tired of waiting, the guard is reasonably skeptical when McDonagh says he's a cop.

McDonagh, gangly in a gray suit, thrusts his pelvis out, his gun flapping: "What's that look like?"

McDonagh is doing what might be called "a huckuva job." Despite his behavior (he also steals evidence and threatens the life of an old lady), he's considered the department's finest detective and he'll be honored twice before the film is done.

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" is one of the most curious films to arrive in a long time. It's a kind of remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 cult classic "Bad Lieutenant," which was set in New York and starred Harvey Keitel in a similar role.

Director Werner Herzog has insisted this is not a remake, though much of the story mimics the original: Our antihero still has a gambling problem with debts mounting; he's still trying to solve a particularly heinous crime (in this case, the drug dealing-motivated slaughter of a family); and redemption might still come for him.

The original "Bad Lieutenant" was sensational, wild and unpredictable. It's exactly what one looks for in pulpy noir, and it contained a truly great performance from Keitel, vulnerable and weighed by Catholic guilt despite his coked-up animalism.

Such films aren't meant to be remade — the very idea is incongruent to their wildness.

Herzog, though a self-described madman himself, also wouldn't seem right. Gritty, stylistic sensationalism is Ferrara's stock in trade, whereas Herzog's long and justly acclaimed career ("Fitzcarraldo," "Grizzly Man") has been defined by raw naturalism.

But Herzog, working from a screenplay by William Finkelstein, has summoned the spirit of the original "Bad Lieutenant" while making something fresh and gloriously insane. In one pivotal scene, McDonagh suddenly asks the very Herzogian question: "Do fish have dreams?"

Where Ferrara placed Catholicism, Herzog has turned to his god: Nature. Throughout Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant" are thoroughly strange, shaky interludes shot from the perspective of various lizards. The scenes play like drug-induced hallucinations: a crocodile watches from the roadside, iguanas join a stakeout.

Cage dives headlong into the madness. It's plain fun to see the actor give himself so fully to a character after several years of mostly forgettable action movies.

Early in the film, McDonagh badly injures his back in one of his few moments of selflessness. Cage thus plays him slightly hunched over, Frankenstein-like in his restricted movements. This gives the performance a physicality that recalls another corrupt police officer: Orson Welles' Hank Quinlan in "Touch of Evil."

Cage, constantly running his hand through his hair, speaks with an odd, hazy drawl that has a touch of Nixon in it. Though often blank and deadpan, he has occasional flashes of glee. He steps out from a stealth arrest almost dancing, "I love it. I just love it." Whenever he utters the amusing nickname of a suspect ("G"), his face lights up in hysterical incredulity.

The rest of the cast doesn't quite keep up, though Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner, playing drug-dealing kingpin Big Fate, is a good foil. Though he's the supposed criminal, he's more composed than McDonagh and the most charismatic character in the movie.

Eva Mendes gives a fine but unremarkable performance as McDonaugh's prostitute girlfriend. Val Kilmer is terribly underused as McDonagh's partner. Given only a caricature to work with, Kilmer seemingly falls out of the movie for an hour.

There's plenty not to like in "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans." It's altogether nutty, and intentionally so. It keeps closer to the original plot than one might want of a film from a highly skilled director. And the ending feels like an a forced, extra dose of Herzog mania.

But it has a pulse, and it's a marvel to watch in wonder.