Minds were blown in movie geek circles last year when it was announced that washed-up sell-out Nicolas Cage and the great madman director Werner Herzog were teaming up for a reimagination of Abel Ferraras relentlessly nasty passion play. Set in a crumbling New York City, Ferraras Bad Lieutenant starred Harvey Keitel as a perverted, gambling addicted junkie cop investigating the rape of a nun. A seething hotbed of lapsed Catholic angst, Ferraras 1992 opus was structured as a sinners Stations of the Cross, complete with the Last Supper in a crack-house, Gethsemane as a Harlem church crime scene, and a semi-crucifixion in pre-Disney Times Square. Theres even a cameo by Jesus.
Heads spun at the prospect of avowed skeptic Herzog tackling such spiritual torment, while everybody else worried that Cage might try to mimic Keitels legendary full-frontal nude scene. Ferrara told reporters he hoped theyd die in a fire.
As it turns out, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a remake in name, but definitely not in spirit. There are a few nods toward the original, but Herzog and Cage (who also produced) have jettisoned the religious angle altogether, adopting a sicko batshit comic tone. Its a tragedy replayed as farce, and probably the funniest film Ive seen all year.
Cage stars as decorated New Orleans cop Terence McDonagh, who suffered a nasty spinal injury rescuing a prisoner from a flooding jail cell during Hurricane Katrina, and has since been trying to manage his chronic back pain with Vicodin. And cocaine. And heroin. And hookers. And crack.
Theres been a nasty gangland slaying in the citys still-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward, an entire family wiped out execution-style by the notorious crime boss Big Fate (Xzibit.) McDonagh catches the case despite the fact that his behavior around the squad room has become somewhat erratic as of late.
The story, by veteran TV cop show-writer William Finklestein, is rote small-screen procedural stuff, with shock value embellishments tossed in for good measure. Lucky for us, Herzog and Cage are openly contemptuous of the story thats being told, and instead use Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans as an excuse for all sorts of whacked-out digressions, absurd comedic set-pieces, and the kind of looney tunes, go-for-broke Nic Cage performance we havent seen in at least a decade.
Hunched and swaggering with a .44 Magnum stuffed down the front of his pants, Cage barks, brays and bellows his lines, ingesting enough controlled substances to kill Keith Richards, devouring the scenery with joyful abandon. Youd have to go all the way back to when he ate a live cockroach in 1988s Vampires Kiss to find Nicolas Cage so deliriously out of control. Homages abound to Herzogs best friend Klaus Kinski, as Cage bugs out his eyes and adopts the late lunatics German expressionist silent-film physicality. After sitting through so many awful, listless Nic Cage performances for so many years, his live-wire work in Bad Lieutenant feels like a reunion with a long lost friend.
From his 1972 masterwork Aguire: The Wrath of God all the way up through 2007s astounding Encounters at the End of the World , Herzog has always been preoccupied with the vastness of nature and its cruel indifference toward mankinds inconsequential plans. His Port of Call New Orleans takes that philosophy to giddy extremes of self-parody, as when a scene is shot from the point of view of a nearby crocodile, for no discernable reason.
This is a naughty, high-spirited larkthe kind of film in which grim plot strands work themselves out through dumb luck, and a tense stake-out halts so our hero can hallucinate a pack of iguanas singing Release Me. By the time Cage interrogates an elderly woman in a wheelchair by cutting off her oxygen mask and screaming the c-word in her face, weve come a long way from Harvey Keitels Catholic crisis. What this Bad Lieutenant lacks in sincerity it makes up for in giddy, nihilistic audacity. Its like watching the original film through a funhouse mirror.