Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage might have been made for each other. Herzog, the wigged-out visionary film-maker domiciled in LA, has lost his way in recent years, coasting on the fame of his great collaborations with Klaus Kinski (Aguirre: Wrath of God, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo), his muse, his goad and, on and off, his deadliest enemy. Kinski died in 1991, since when the director has been in search of a star who understood his demented flair and love of risk. He briefly found him, too, in the person of Timothy Treadwell, a naturalist whose obsessive quest for togetherness with grizzly bears became the subject of his astonishing 2005 documentary Grizzly Man. Unfortunately, the partnership was brutally sundered when Treadwell made his final exit, pursued and killed by a bear.
Nicolas Cage has been in the creative doldrums, too, after tripping along heights of mania seldom scaled in American movies. Whether you liked his style or not, no other Hollywood "name" put himself out there quite like Cage did in Vampire's Kiss, or Leaving Las Vegas, or even Snake Eyes, hitherto his ne plus ultra of bad cops. Somewhere along the way, he decided to go mainstream (did we just hallucinate him in Captain Corelli's Mandolin?) and the wildness at his heart seemed to die. Maybe he lacked for a director to push him, to try for those crazed notes of comedy and rage that once sang off his performances.
Well, he's got one now with Herzog on Bad Lieutenant, and it is righteous. The film has an unwieldy subtitle, Port of Call: New Orleans, but that is only there to distinguish it from Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant, to which Herzog's version stands at an angle, neither sequel nor remake. Back then, Harvey Keitel took the title role, and virtually turned himself inside out in pursuit of one man's tormenting appetites. That film, seduced by its subject's depravity, was brutish, squalid, frenzied, possibly certifiable and surely unrepeatable. Strike that last one: Herzog has thrown down the challenge, and Cage has answered it in magnificently warped style. He has given it The Full Kinski, you might say.
And yet how unpromisingly it is presented. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, it's a film of dank, lowering skies and sickly blue dawns. The streets look drab and hungover; one scene features the aftermath of a road accident, and only later do we see that it's shot from the point of view of an alligator. It eventually slithers off, unimpressed. Rogue cop Terence McDonagh (Cage) isn't so cold-blooded – we see him rescue a flood victim early on – but he's no hotshot dispenser of justice either. Afflicted with searing back pain, he starts out on painkillers, then graduates to coke and crack, which he also supplies to his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes). Tucking a .44 Magnum under his belt, he's a law unto himself, and the city is his personal fiefdom. If he can't pinch drugs off his arrests, he calls in at the police evidence room and pockets them there. He also has a hopeless gambling addiction, and spends much of the movie trying to dodge his bookie (Brad Dourif) and the various mobsters who have underwritten his debts.
The plot? Well, the fallout from a multiple murder trickles through the film, and at one stage our bad lieutenant is obliged to look after a teenager who may have witnessed the shooting. Having watched his minder snort drugs, intimidate suspects and generally behave like a nutter, the kid leaves town – actually, he leaves the country, and is last heard of under Scotland Yard's protection in London. You can't blame him. No, the plot really begins and ends with the bad lieutenant himself; the key is wondering how far down the spiral of perdition he will fall. It is enlivened by a subplot as to whether Herzog can keep his mind on the job to finish it. This must be the only director in the world who would interrupt a scene of police business with an impish cameo from an iguana, lip-synching to "Please Release Me". I think it's meant to convey the lieutenant's drug-blitzed fatigue, though I can't be sure.
What keeps the film alive – manically alive – is Cage, pale of face and racked of body. By the end he's so lopsided with pain that he looks ready to audition for Richard III. It is difficult to know how much his lunatic spontaneity is down to William Finkelstein's script and how much to his own devices. Some scenes look barely rehearsed at all; when the lieutenant and his new partner-in-crime Big Fate (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner) are driving away from a successful drug deal, Cage suddenly blurts out, "To the break o' dawn! To the break o' dawn!" and then falls about laughing. If he wants to interrogate a witness while giving himself a shave (electric) then why the hell not? But in a movie that's defined by bad behaviour the lulu of them all is his terrorising of an old lady and her careworker in a retirement home. He even has the cheek to end his sulphurous rant with "you're what's wrong with this country!"
At times the mood becomes so ominous you could almost believe Herzog is presenting a morality tale. How bad can this lieutenant get? The film shows us how, without ever quite forsaking him: he is the fool who persists in his folly until he becomes wise. Cage dominates the screen almost to the point of overwhelming it: Eva Mendes as the girlfriend is a peripheral figure, so too Val Kilmer as his partner. And you know what – it doesn't matter. Uneven and desultory as it is, this operates pretty much like its eponymous anti-hero, steamrollering all before it with nerve, bluster, force of will and – who'd have thought it? – irrepressible charm.