What happens when an obsessive German art-house director is given a CSI-style crime thriller to direct? The answer – if this highly eccentric new version of Bad Lieutenant is taken as the measure – is that you end up with a film that is pulling furiously in two competing directions at once.
On the one hand, this is a cliché-ridden police procedural, rehashing ideas we've seen many times before. On the other, Werner Herzog and his star Nicolas Cage, who gives a manic and wildly overblown performance, want to push to extremes, even if they do risk falling flat on their faces.
Abel Ferrara is reportedly unhappy that Herzog has had the temerity to remake his original film. Ferrara doesn't have too much to worry about, though: the Ferrara Bad Lieutenant and the new version are very different projects. The new film opens in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina. Cage plays Terrence McDonagh, a cop with an appetite for sex, drugs and blackmail. McDonagh is sleazy but there is also an innocence, and even an idealism, about him. He is ready to dive into the foetid water left by the hurricane to rescue a low-life felon who is about to drown.
McDonagh's heroism wins him a promotion but does nothing for his back. That's why he is so dependent on painkillers. "Whatever I take is prescription, except for the heroin," he protests at the idea that he is an addict. Nor are his back pains behind his gambling addiction, which has left him massively in debt. His superiors tolerate his eccentricities because he is such an accomplished detective. His girlfriend, high-class call girl Frankie (Eva Mendes), is likewise able to overlook his indulgences.
The screenplay by William Finkelstein certainly isn't very original. There has been a massacre and the New Orleans cops are shaking down the local drug dealers and hoods to find out who committed it.
In Herzog's films with Klaus Kinski (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo et al), the director encouraged his lead actor to push toward that line where acting and psychosis collide. Kinski played megalomaniacs so set on achieving some ludicrous goal that their reason seems to desert them. There is nothing especially heroic about Cage's quest here, but the actor does his best to match the febrile intensity of Kinski. Cage's McDonagh grows more demented. He hallucinates that he sees the souls of dead men and, whenever he's too high, iguanas and crocodiles mysteriously seem to wander into frame.
In truth, the screenplay can't quite sustain the pressure that the director and the star's operatics place upon it. We're never quite sure how far Herzog's tongue is in his cheek or how seriously Cage expects us to take his hamming. But, whatever else, this film is a slap in the face to all those Michael Mann movies in which cops and thieves are rigorously professional and everything is precise and polished. Here, chaos prevails.
Both director and actor risk making asses of themselves. But, in a world that is already full of conventional, straitlaced cop movies, a film as preposterous as this arrives as a tonic: an object lesson in how to take a routine assignment and subvert it.