I’ve got to say, that the thought of handing over the keys of a cliche ridden traditional cop thriller to Werner Herzog and letting him drive it out of the showroom, is partly a stroke of genius and partly, or completely, totally and absolutely, insane. Not that Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film (one which Herzog claims he’s still never seen) was anything traditional of course. What’s weird with this revamp (remake, reboot, re imagining… whatever) is that at first glance, it looks, walks and talks like an episode of a television cop show.
Hey… I said at first glance.
We’re in New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (that bitch) and Terence McDonaugh (Cage – a jokey reference to trouble maker H.I McDonaugh in the Coen’s Raising Arizona?) avoids the brow beating of a partner to rescue a crook from a jail cell. A shot sharp glance at a good side of someone who, on paper, should be categorically set up for us to believe he doesn’t have one.
We jump a few months ahead and as New Orleans is getting back on track, the hunched and injured McDonaugh is on the ropes, wired on coke, heroin and anything else he can swipe from the police locker room.
The plot is simple; A family is murdered in their home the cops begin turning over the local drug barons for info. McDonaugh also has to keep prostitute/girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes) out of the hands of some heavy clients, keep his recovering alcoholic father and presently alcoholic step mother in check and a keep a grasp of a lengthy debt to bookie Ned (Brad Dourif). Its no wonder he looks as frazzled as he does.
Cage’s wonky, hunched, whining performance (in some scenes you’d swear he’s doing an Edward G. Robinson impersonation) is something of a freak car crash but at the same time amazingly entertaining to watch. The difference in tone of the original film compared to Herzog’s is giant and it’s the serious off kilter comedy element, here almost at the forefront, that makes sure this version bares a resemblance only in wire frame to Keitel and Ferrera’s unsettling drama. There are some amazing laugh out loud moments in Bad Lieutenant and Herzog too seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself behind the camera; You can almost see that cheeky little smile playing on his lips at every turn.
Of course there are dark moments. McDonaugh’s ‘frisking’ of a couple emerging from a night club echo Fererra’s infamous ‘traffic caution’ scene and even though Herzog claims he hasn’t seen the original you get the feeling that writer William Finkelstien has watched it a few times. Herzog’s own additions are glaringly obvious and pull the film in some bizarre directions, including some hallucinations involving Iguanas shot on DV and some of Cage’s ad-libbed gems make the film a very strange ride indeed for your average cop film.
Considering Bad Lieutenant’s content, it is strangely easy to find yourself smiling all the way through. The tetchy tightrope walk between the forever stoned cop and the very real problems outside of his haze are handled with a brilliant sly and savage wit. Often you aren’t sure if it’s fun that’s being poked at an over bloated and over franchised genre or if Herzog is having one of his own wonderful moments.
It feels nothing like real life, nothing like fantasy and absolutely nothing like it’s previous incarnation and, for that alone, it’s a truly original re imagining (remake, reboot.)
Whatever… It’s got Iguanas in it!