Do fish have dreams? Do they dream of ominous iguanas, perhaps? Or maybe the disembodied breakdancing souls of freshly capped gangsters? More to the point, will Nicolas Cage ever make another movie that makes sense? Judging by his new one, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” and considering his current financial straits, the prospects seem dim.
The director — the esteemed Werner Herzog, stupefyingly enough — claims never to have seen Abel Ferrara’s original 1992 “Bad Lieutenant,” and I think we can take him at his word. The Ferrara movie, which I’d recommend seeing before — or better yet instead of — this one, concerns a viciously bent New York City cop; and Harvey Keitel, in the title role, is the embodiment of rank, skeezy corruption. In Herzog’s take on the story, the action has been relocated, for no reason at all, to New Orleans, “in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.” Cage, in full rant-and-glower mode, plays Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, whose self-assigned duties include stealing drugs from the police evidence room, tooting up with his hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes), and barging around town with a huge handgun stuffed right in the front of his pants, like a walking Smith & Wesson commercial. I doubt that rude laughter is what the director was going for, but it’s continually elicited.
The plot, which wanders around like a drunken tourist without a map, has McDonagh tracking a local drug lord called Big Fate (rap graduate Xzibit, very persuasive), whom he suspects of blowing away a group of freelance smack merchants. There was one witness to the wipeout, a little kid named Daryl (Denzel Whitaker). McDonagh can’t find him, so he confronts the boy’s godmother (Irma P. Hall). She won’t give him up. But then, in a moment of blinding convenience, Daryl just steps in through a window, reporting for plot duty.
Soon McDonagh and Daryl and a dog who’s also drifted into the story are off to Biloxi to find the hooker girlfriend, Frankie. They locate her at a hotel, where one of her clients (Shea Whigham) has not only beat her up, but is continuing to lash her with bad acting. Then Daryl disappears. Then a mob enforcer named Marco (Eugene Gratz) shows up. McDonagh has accumulated gambling debts of $3,000, so Marco wants him to hand over $50,000. (Mob math skills clearly haven’t improved since the days when Al Capone miscalculated his taxes.) Wriggling out of that tight spot, McDonagh decides to stash Frankie at the country home of his alcoholic father (Tom Bower) for safekeeping. There he shows her “my special place” — a room where he once played pirates as a kid and also, very sadly, lost a sterling silver spoon he’s never been able to find again. (This must be a metaphor, because why would a drug fiend in possession of what he fondly calls “my lucky crack pipe” still need a spoon?)
McDonagh’s life is further complicated when suspicious Internal Affairs officers come down on him and confiscate his gun. Our man is pissed: “A man without a gun is not a man,” he says. (He also says things like “I’ll kill all of you till the break of dawn, baby,” and “No, thank you, we’re going to stick with our sparkling water.”) By this point, we’ve already made the acquaintance of the aforementioned iguanas, lazing on a coffee table in a crowded room, where only McDonagh can see them. And soon we witness the breakdancing soul rising from the body of a slain bad guy. These are supposed to be hallucinations, I guess. But when McDonagh leaves the room with the coffee table, the lizards remain behind, in continuous full view. And when he shoots the dancing soul, it falls to the floor (adding existential ambiguity to the picture’s already abundant confusions).
Cage can’t really take the whole fall for this muddled movie. He puts a lot of energy into his performance, and he does get an occasional good line. (“Everything I take is prescription … except for the heroin.”). But unlike Keitel in the original picture, he’s too personable to pass for a complete scumbag. And the script, by William Finkelstein, generally gives him very little but nonsense to work with. Then there’s Herzog’s direction, which is anything but rigorous. (One of his shots, framed between the gaping jaws of a big alligator, is something you might expect from a first-year film student, not an internationally renowned director.) The movie goes on a bit too long, and it swaddles us in a fog of torpid indifference. By the time McDonagh finally recovers his silver spoon, you may be ready for a few toots yourself.