The story of Werner Herzog'z "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" tells a dark, cosmic joke. And at the center of the maelstrom is Nicolas Cage giving a frantic, unhinged, and incredibly hilarious performance. Cage captures the manic highs and dead-end lows of a drug addict in a manner that is far more entertaining than most "drug films" and represents his best performance in at least 20 years.
Nic Cage don't give a %#(@ about probable cause
Sometimes when an actor delivers this particular kind of hyper-acting, it can seem like the rest of the movie is simply kind of existing around - or desperately trying to keep up with - their performance piece. See: Nicolas Cage in "Vampire's Kiss" or Crispin Glover in "River's Edge."
Fortunately, with "Bad Lieutenant" one senses that Herzog and Cage are totally in sync and Herzog is more than up to the task of crafting a compelling film around Cage's character (who Ain't-It-Cool-News' Quint accurately likened to a Universal Monster).
I could spend hours imagining the hilarity of this conversation
It starts with Herzog's unique directing flourishes, like the shot from an alligator's POV as it mourns the death of one of its brethren in a roadside accident; or Nicolas Cage stumbling through an arcade while under the influence of drugs, the lights and sounds of the arcade exaggerated for impressionistic effect, and the disembodied voice proclaiming "Insert coin to play" almost like some kind of metaphor for drug use.
There's also a scene of Cage driving at night, with prostitutes emerging in and out of the inky darkness to call unintelligibly after him, that would make David Lynch proud with its surreal quality.
Poor Louisiana alligator...
Herzog fills out his supporting cast with stellar actors, whose faces are both unfamiliar and familiar. Brad Dourif delivers a great turn as a bookie, while Shea Whigham steals every scene he's in (no small feat when you're acting against Cage) with his constant "Ohhhh yeahhhhh's." Michael Shannon and Fairuza Balk make the most of their bit parts as two fellow cops.
Val Kilmer is great in a limited role, playing a character who is seemingly sober yet somehow WORSE than Cage's drugged out lieutenant. On that note, I'd love to see a spin-off movie about Val's character. I can only imagine the kind of insanity that film would conjure up. I doubt Herzog would return to helm such a project so why don't we give it to someone like Tony Scott (who worked with Kilmer before on "Top Gun" and "Deja Vu"), who'd probably take the proceedings way too seriously - and thus make it even more hysterical?
Val Kilmer: don't call it a comeback
With Cage acting up a storm, the highlights come fast and frequent. There's Cage going behind the counter to fill his own Vicodin prescription ("Can I have my prescription now, PAH-LEASE?!?!"); Cage sneaking up behind an armed suspect and then basking in the praise of his fellow officers ("I love it, I love it"); Cage taking drug and sex bribes from a young couple outside a dance club ("Did your parents MOLEST you?!" is his character's idea of dirty talk); and his interrogation tactics with two well-to-do Southern ladies.
This is not to mention the bits of insanity you've probably already seen in the trailer: iguanas on coffee tables, Cage threatening to kill some drug dealers "'till the BREAK OF DAWN, BABY!" What makes all of it work is that Cage never once breaks character; he remains fully committed to the role and the reality of his bad lieutenant - notice his limp that grows more exaggerated as the film goes on - so that no matter how over the top he goes you're never taken out of the story.
With Nicolas Cage, this...
...quickly escalates to THIS.
By the time you reach the end of "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," Herzog has taken what would have otherwise been a standard police procedural and turned it into a morbidly humorous treatise on karma. In every other film where a character is dependent on drugs, you almost certainly know what you're in for: a downward spiral as the addict becomes increasingly reliant on their substance until their entire life implodes.
This film is anything but predictable. And since Cage makes his lieutenant so damn likable (or at least watchable), as ugly and brutal as his behavior is you can't help but smile and laugh when everything falls into his lap despite little to no effort on his part. Hey, sometimes life works out like that...and here, it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.
Anddddd - CUT!