In his latest film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog has somehow managed to translate the searing nihilism of Stroszek into a police drama set in post-Katrina New Orleans starring none other than Nic Cage. And Cage actually does a superb job. He has a lunacy that is often misdirected–take for instance Wicker Man. But Herzog effectively uses Cage’s wild-eyed rants to rival those of Klaus Kinski. Following his character’s back injury, Cage even adopts a stiff walk with an uncanny resemblance to Kinski in Aguirre.
The filmmaking is quintessentially Herzog, with bizarre, lingering camera work from the perspective of reptiles. Bad Lieutenant also touches on the nihilistic “circles” found in Stroszek. At the end of the film, when you think Cage’s character is a reformed family man, he’s actually back to same horrific acts–smoking crack and using his police status to force women into sex, doing heroin with reformed drug addicts, and generally raising the hair on your back. Herzog even uses the same manic harmonica music from Stroszek’s famous ending in a scene where Cage asks Xzibit’s character to shoot a man again because “he can see his soul still dancing.”
Bad Lieutenant is not for the faint of heart. I’m sure many movie-goers will enter the film expecting the usual cop action/drama and leave with their worlds crushed for the night. But I think this is what makes Herzog a true genius. He’s not just making art films–he’s making mainstream dramas with Nic Cage and Xzibit that evoke powerful, universal themes of nihilism, addiction, and the cycles of existence. He’s bringing art to the masses.