Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, from a William M. Finkelstein screenplay, represents a form of pleasure for which this writer, in his recreational critical guise, rarely advocates, let alone enjoys personally: that of really bad film art. After all, to find pleasure in bad art is to participate in a lesser brand of spectatorship, defined by the location of incriminating details - ridiculed from a problematic position of superiority - compared to the synthetic act required to recognize greater works, whereby the viewer is called upon to map out the form-content relationship that stands at the crux of any quasi-objective aesthetic evaluation. Worse still, spending time with bad art takes away from an engagement of more substantial works, for which there never has been a shortage, even in a qualitatively lesser moment like our own. (As this decade is coming to a close, it has become increasingly evident that the 1990s represented a markedly richer ten year period.)
All of the above is to preface this author's acknowledgment of The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans's interest, emerging from the picture's staggering inexplicability, despite the fact that it remains a remarkably bad work of cinema in most respects. (Those unwilling to make the bad film leap are still making the correct choice in this case.) Indeed, Herzog essentially plays Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992) antecedent, from which its greatest debt is the former's eponymous protagonist, as absurdist comedy - though, and this is where the interest lies, seemingly without screenwriter Finkelstein's awareness. Herzog adds a mournful alligator's close-up, shot very poorly by the director himself in consumer-grade DV, and a ridiculous monologue referencing a sterling silver spoon to the television writer's (N.Y.P.D. Blue, Murder One, L.A. Law) genuinely awful screenplay. It is as though Herzog is sabotaging the film's hoped for franchisability from the outset.
Port of Call shoots for, and easily reaches the realm of the ridiculous through its poker-faced presentation of Terence McDonagh's (Nicolas Cage) unswerving commitment to his numerous vices - crack-cocaine being foremost of these - which the film mixes with its unaccountable passages of sentimental dialogue and scoring, as well as some of the more comically absurd gestures to appear in any recent work of narrative cinema (the film's absolute highlight, for this writer, is Cage's surprise interrogation, while shaving with an electric razor, of two elderly women in their home; Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, eat your heart out). And it does so within the explicit context of a post-Katrina New Orleans, whose location is used to surprisingly sparse effect, thereby adding to the gratuitous provocation of Port of Call's bad taste.
Yet, it is not only the film's taste-level that provokes, but further its unmistakably low quality, as if the legendary German filmmaker was working, from the very beginning, within an imagined "film maudit" genre. This is the cinematic equivalent of a Norwegian death metal artist beheading himself to show how metal he is; and it is as good for Herzog's legacy as eating a shoe was for his digestive system. In making Port of Call the director shows the good sense of Timothy Treadwell, which then again does give Herzog's participation a perverse logic.
The question remains, however, who else was in on the joke. (The reading that the film is not to be taken seriously is to give Port of Call the benefit of the doubt; if it is, something has gone very wrong in its makers' minds. His recent collaboration with David Lynch might suggest, troublingly, that it could just be.) Was Finkelstein? Again, neither his previous credits nor the idea of updating Bad Lieutenant in modern day New Orleans would suggest that he was. How about Cage in what is an epically preposterous, Golem-esque performance - his Leaving Las Vegas (1995) turn perhaps played for comedy, perhaps not? The fact that Cage would sign on at all might suggest that he knew that the film's absurdity would insulate him from what would seem to be an obvious, inevitable scorn. Then again, Cage's insinuation that the film might succeed as a franchise calls this into question. Either way, Cage's 'bad lieutenant' is something to be seen to be believed - and to be quoted ad infinitum.
Fortunately, for his less self-aware collaborators, Herzog does his best to assure that Port of Call will be Bad Lieutenant's lone, unaccountable, if fascinatingly preposterous "sequel." In so doing, Herzog shows a truly remarkable indifference to his personal reputation.