As disorienting as it is for anyone to sit through this not-really-a-sequel sequel to Abel Ferrara's 1992 dark odyssey Bad Lieutenant, that must really go double for POCNO screenwriter William M. Finkelstein. Finkelstein, a veteran TV crime procedural writer (L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), has employed that knowledge base to the service of a fairly standard cop feature here, setting his characters through the motions of a relatively typical multiple homicide in a crack house. How strange it must be, then, for Finkelstein to see his crime script being utterly disregarded, mangled and spat out by director Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Grizzly Man) until it's a deliciously off-putting, anti-genre campfest.
Finkelstein must have seen it coming. He has spent his career in a medium that over-familiarized average household audiences with the ins and outs of crime dramas to the point where any suburban accountant can sit in his recliner and, according to how much time is left in the hour, assess how close the case is to being solved. That watcher would have no problem reciting Miranda rights, either, or determining whether or not there's enough circumstantial evidence to convict. Thus, a theatrical crime drama need not waste precious time and money pretending that any surprises could possibly lurk within the structure. The Bad Lieutenant: POCNO focuses instead on playing wildly within the tight confines of its type.
Herzog deserves a lot of credit for casting such blatant cop go-to guys (Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes) ' all of whom are perfectly comfortable in bad, B-movie cop flicks ' and then freeing them of all pretense of seriousness and letting them off the chain.
Cage stars as Terence McDonagh, whose one good deed ' maybe ever ' punishes him with a lifetime of back pain, an addiction to prescription drugs and unhappiness. Years after his opening lifesaving deed, McDonagh walks around like Frankenstein's monster, stiff and twisted, shaking down kids for their drugs then consuming said drugs in front of them, and usually much worse. Kilmer, as his sometime partner, pops in and out of frame throughout the film to chide or get chided by McDonagh, and McDonagh's girlfriend, a prostitute (Mendes), hangs out on the sideline ready to feed his various appetites. McDonagh's beat is post-Katrina New Orleans, a city that's resigned itself to just getting by; corruption and open debauchery are the least of its concerns.
In other words, it's not a bad setup for a bad lieutenant.
But the drugs take their toll on McDonagh's psyche and his body. Cage contorts himself gradually from a detective in pain to a nasal, sniveling hunchback, the Gollum of New Orleans, who sees iguanas and breakdancers where there are none. Herzog's camera is right there with them in the darkness, and the film, growing a life of its own, is often so distracted by alligators and pretty lights that it leaves the story entirely to pursue its interests, leading to uproariously nonsensical POV shots.
If Herzog demonstrated a pattern of increasing folly, this film might be cause for concern over his well-being. But his recent films (Encounters at the End of the World, Rescue Dawn) have been disciplined and crafty. Knowing this frees the audience to enjoy his detour into Crazytown with no holds barred, and that makes The Bad Lieutenant a wonderfully trashy and participatory crowd-pleaser.