Was there ever a better cinematic pairing than Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog? Well, Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog, but here I sense a second coming. The H-man was always obsessed with something, anything, even obsession, and Cage also plays his roles with an unhinged, wild-man version of obsession, even if recently it’s been obsession for paychecks so he can go trampoline in a castle somewhere. And here they’ve produced the kind of film that wouldn’t be more appropriate anywhere than on a screen in front of said trampoline, ready to give you a splitting headache or cast you into the stratosphere. I’m not sure which.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a spiritual successor to the 1992 film of the same main title, is a film noir, but it’s the kind we haven’t seen in decades – the kind epitomized by eccentric ’50s films like Kiss Me Deadly. These films were gloriously weird and slyly subversive. They played by their own rules, created characters that fit types of their own creations, and took joy in a sort of playful anarchy of their own creation. They were like playgrounds for filmmakers interested in raw emotions taken to extremes that couldn’t exist in reality. They were fantasies, all the more ruthless because they masqueraded as reality. Nowadays, we get stoic, grim films with no sense of humor and a nagging desire to strive for reality. In doing so, they sacrifice unconscious affect.
To all these films, Herzog and Cage proudly stick up their middle-fingers and tell them to scram. There’s no place in their playground for glum histrionics. Here, in their place, we have an amoral black hole of a film and one which is damn proud of it and having fun with it’s very existence. We get a hero who is gloriously anarchic, and who doesn’t necessarily get judged for it – he’s a character who’s obsessed with something, but we’re not really ever sure what. He will do pretty much anything, except play by the rules, to get what he wants. He does all manner of things here, including threatening old ladies, and of course, hallucinating iguanas in a scene the director never apologizes for. He exists in a world of his own, a world he’s playing, and that’s trying to play him back. Herzog doesn’t create a masterpiece here, but this is about as interesting a non-masterpiece as you can find.
And in the middle of it all, there is Cage, walking with a limp as distorting as any camera angle Herzog can muster, stopping for no man. He throws himself into the role, giving us ten performances worth of off-the-wall gusto. But he never bats an eye – he’s taking it seriously, as is Herzog, and that’s why the film works. They keep the film committed to its own bananas logic. They don’t let us question it, even when we must, and that creates a beautiful dissonance, the kind we don’t see in films anymore. This is a delightfully weird film, but it isn’t a show-off. It doesn’t throw its weirdness in our face. It couches it in reality, as many noirs did. As a genre study, this film, like many old film noirs, slowly but surely introduces us to its own view of the world where people get away with anything. And because it plays it as real even when it’s very gloriously unrealistic, it scares and confuses us.
Many films today seem to work like puzzle-boxes, trying to confuse us with non-linear narratives and asking us to fit them together. They dare us. This film has a linear narrative, but Herzog goes further; he mocks us, and he gives us a film that doesn’t need to confuse us with intentionally distorted logic in the script. The fundamental story is quite simple, so simple that it plays like hundreds of other naughty detective movies. There’s no real reason to describe the plot here, except to say it involves a druggy detective trying to do his job and hide his own anarchic destruction while at it. It’s not the twisting of the narrative proper that makes this film though; Herzog uses, instead, subtle subversion and filmmaking prowess to distort a deceptively simple story, to make us look one way (toward the supposed simplicity of everything) while he’s smacking us over the head from the other direction. This takes more confidence than relying on narrative twists and turns, a confidence that Herzog and Cage have always exceeded at, and basked in. Here, they gave us a rousingly off-the-wall combination, if only for one film, that should live on. They give us a true modern pleasure, a kind of long lost classic just released and ready to give us the finger.