On paper, it seemed quizzical that the great and quirky German director Werner Herzog would choose to make his first American cop movie this late in his career (he’s 67, but in full creative swing these days). But nagging questions quickly are laid to rest within a scene or two of this saucy, blissfully unconventional remake of Abel Ferrara’s gritty 1992 film. In Herzog’s superior version, set in New Orleans, the unapologetically “bad” lieutenant-played with a crazed glaze by Nicolas Cage-is a direct descendant of Herzog’s old pal and recurring star Klaus Kinski, an obsessive and transgressive protagonist dancing on the brink.
Despite the radical differences in venue and genre, Bad Lieutenant falls neatly in line with such Herzog classics as Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and even his profound doc Grizzly Man, both thematically and in terms of the unique Herzog touch. The jungle in question this time is New Orleans’s seedier, venal drug-running quarters. Yes, the lieutenant here is categorically bad, consuming copious amounts of drugs, running up shark-infested debts, and navigating the sphere where his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) runs. But he is also driven maniacally to get the job done, by whatever means necessary.
Herzog has fun with the genre, making it almost comically gritty. “Shoot him again,” says our man, after a satisfying and long-worked-for offing of a bad guy, “his soul’s still dancing.” In his ill-fitting suits and vulpine slouch, Cage himself delivers a weirdly seductive performance, adding to his very short list of great turns-i.e. Wild at Heart and Leaving Las Vegas. He’s best in roles where brute force, drugged affectations, and eccentric theatricality are required.
Hollywood would be lucky to have Herzog working his magic in the ongoing supply line of new feature films, but his stubborn and multilayered artistic vision may not win over the multiplex set. At least in this case, Herzog has delivered a fascinating, unflinching, darkly comical, and shamelessly unrepentant “bad cop” tale with a fresh sense of style. It’s the cop flick of the year. Who woulda thunk?