Bad Lieutenant: Port of CallNew Orleans opens Friday in select theaters

Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a jagged thrill ride, a mock policier, an unapologetic freak-out and self-aware masterpiece of anti-cinema. Having never seen Abel Ferrara’s more concisely named 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, I have to rely on reports that these films have very little in common and that Herzog’s film is not a remake or an homageand the half-appropriated title is little more than a publicity stunt.

Nicolas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a drug-addict detective, whodespite and because of his drug use and gambling, love affair with a high-class hooker and absorbing love of general mayhemis an excellent, fearless cop. The chief has made McDonagh head of an investigation into the drug-related killing of five Senegalese immigrants in a seriously scary part of town in hopes that they can bring down crack kingpin Big Fate (Xzibit).

McDonagh’s sanctioned position as the most important badge in town effectively sets him on the loose in the streets of New Orleans (much like Herzog), where he shakes down white squares for their stash and hangs out with black thugs and dealerswith whom he runs scams that help him fund his bad habits. As he goes renegade, alienating his partner (Val Kilmer, bloated and sublime), he crosses plenty of legal and ethical lines. But is he crossing the line from sketchy cop to outright criminal? Is he cooperating with the bad guys to win their trust and bring them down or just for cash and kicks?

That question remains ambiguous for most of the movie, and its resolution near the end isn’t really the point. In fact, a third-act scene at the police station wraps up a bunch of the loose plot lines with such tossed-off rapidity that it’s clear Herzog has used his narrative only to poke fun at its own conventions. Even better, the familiar story line sets into sharp relief Herzog’s anything-goes approach, with which Herzog manages to top even Cage, America’s greatest ham, who turns in his best performance since the similarly bonkers Face/Off.

The best thing about Bad Lieutenant is Herzog’s headstrong willingness to put his camera wherever the hell he wants, including taking on the point of view of reptiles in sequences that the maestro shot himself. Far from seeming outlandish or meaningless, these moments provide an ecstasy that implies the need for a dictum: Henceforth, directors with alligators on location must grab some pickup shots from their perspective. Herzog has taken a few stabs at English-language narrative respectability in the past (Invincible, Rescue Dawn), but Bad Lieutenant has more in common with his free-for-all curiosities like Fata Morgana or Lessons of Darkness.

In fact, if you can believe it, Cage is really the sane one here, the good cop to Herzog’s maniac. Already a director who has had myth-making partnerships with his lead actors (Klaus Kinski, Bruno S.), Herzog has paired with Cage for even more harmonious delirium. As Cage does a Jerry Lewis-like interpretation of Aguirre (Herzog’s most famous protagonist, played by Kinski), he binds together what otherwise might have been a more disjointed but undoubtedly still joyous, rigid middle finger to the cinema of quality that directors in the know have been trying to take down since the glory days of Cahiers du Cinema. This is easily the most fun I’ve had all year at the movies.