Crime thrillers are too often formulaic and increasingly sadistic. When done well, however, the genre can be a thing to behold, pulpy and engaging. "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" is done well.

Crime thrillers are too often formulaic and increasingly sadistic. When done well, however, the genre can be a thing to behold, pulpy and engaging. "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" is done well. It's wonderfully surprising, offbeat and a character study that begins curiously and soon falls off a cliff into quirky, around-the-bend depravity. But a good depravity, if that's not an oxymoron.

"Bad Lieutenant" is set in New Orleans during the months following Hurricane Katrina. Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), a cop, injures his back jumping into the vile, rising waters of a cellblock to save a prisoner. He is all but instantly transformed into a homicide detective who is in constant pain and addicted to anything prescriptive or nonprescriptive, meaning any kind of dope that he can take off of suspects or smuggle out of the police property room. He walks with a tortured gait, snorts, fornicates — his girlfriend is a hooker (Eva Mendes) — gambles, and hallucinates (he sees iguanas), all while pursuing a kingpin drug dealer who has killed a family thought to be encroaching on his turf.

McDonagh is a man in a deep hole and he can't stop digging. Incrementally, his life goes from bad to very bad, and all he hears are doors slamming shut. And though he is driven by a buffet of demons, he also is brilliant and courageous and above all a character who is compelling to watch.

Though all is chaos, he manages it with a remarkable discipline and clarity considering the amount of white powder he is putting up his nose. At no time does the film slip into gratuitous, unrepentant violence or simplistic retribution, though McDonagh does carry an enormous gun and never hesitates to take it out.

Someone once said about Mike Tyson that he could hit you so hard that it would change the way you taste. Of course it's a bit of hyperbole; however, director Werner Herzog, well known for his high-risk, high-gain approach to filmmaking, takes the police procedural and gives it a punch and changes the way the genre tastes. If only for a moment.

Cage's portrayal of McDonagh is likely his best performance since "Leaving Las Vegas." He is completely convincing, his eyes bulging, his voice alternatively a mumble and a manic string of sentences, punctuated by drug-induced tics. Of course he's an unreliable protagonist and initially repellent. But gradually it becomes clear that there is a method to his madness, and madness is as close to being accurate as any adjective could be when describing "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans." It is madly entertaining. And no matter the title.

The Book of Eli

What's always compelling about post-apocalyptic films is the freedom writers have to take the remnants of civilization and construct their own particular view of how the world might be found.

Often they tap into that latent feeling that if the constraints and demands of modern society, along with the intrusive overlay of technology, were swept away — along with most people (say a worldwide pandemic) — leaving everything else intact, then life for those who survive, while desperately lonely, might just be a magnificent shopping spree. The supplies and equipment and clothing and cars are endless and should last several generations. OK, no hospitals, likely no doctors, but lots of drug stores, hardware stores and Safeways. This particular vision is closer to utopian than not, and such scenarios have an almost '60s texture: those left behind return to their roots, find fulfillment in a simpler, agrarian life, establish embracing communities, band together to confront those who don't share their values. A fine example is "The Postman," one of the better post-apocalyptic films to come out of the '90s (there also was the interminable "Waterworld"), followed later by "I am Legend."

And then there is the vision of a post-world that is far more dystopian. In these films, the event that has altered the landscape, leaving the environment all but stripped of foliage, the forests' gray-brown stumps, the sky raining ash and a perpetual gray mist. All is barren, as are the souls of men. This is the vision of the recently released film, "The Road," now followed by "The Book of Eli."

Both films have at their center survivors of an unnamed worldwide rupture, origins unknown.

In "The Book of Eli," a solitary man (Denzel Washington) is walking west. It proves to be a harrowing journey. The patina of restraint, of law and order, has been supplanted by a simmering, lethal violence. Predators are everywhere, cannibalism common, the strong victimizing the weak.

With its desolate, sepia tones, "The Book of Eli" is an engaging film (shot with a state-of-the-art digital camera called the Red). Briefly, Eli, on his way to the Pacific Ocean, arrives at a bleak-looking town where, he discovers, they have water — the hard currency of this brave new world. A ruthless leader, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), surrounded by a brigade of thugs, is looking for a particular book, believing that it will give him the words to expand his dictatorial powers well beyond his small fiefdom. He is convinced that Eli, who has disclosed that he reads a book every day, might have the last remaining copy.

There are moments of stylized violence that never feel gratuitous and certainly add to the mystery of this singular man called Eli. Who is he? And how has he survived some 30 years of wandering through the detritus of a ruined civilization, a man with a mission that transcends simply heading west, a mission from which he will not be deterred. There is a religious overlay to the narrative, but the film never feels preachy. And there is a wonderful twist at the end of the film that is unexpected.

Post-apocalyptic films have the potential to be far more interesting than looming, catastrophic disaster films — examples being "The Day After Tomorrow" and the more recent "2012." Post-films can dwell on the fragility of civilization. They can make the point that without a modicum of harmony and order and restraint, society can quickly devolve into chaos, framed by an endless desolation. In these films, human nature can be examined in its most brutal and its most heroic form. Such possibilities are what make this genre so potentially powerful and certainly entertaining.