So the deal is that Edward Pressman, producer of Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant, owns the rights to the title and decided the time was right to reuse it with an eye to kick-starting a franchise (he is also currently planning Wall Street 2, and a reboot of The Crow.) He wanted someone unexpected to direct and eyebrows were certainly raised when news filtered out that it was to be crazy German arthouse-favourite Werner Herzog; and in star Nicolas Cage, Herzog may just have found a worthy replacement for his erstwhile muse, the late, great and certifiably insane Klaus Kinski.
Cage is back on terrifically loony form after years of pedestrian films and poor performances, as the eponymous drug-addicted, procedure-ignoring cop. It’s not a remake of the Ferrara film which, like Harvey Keitel’s protagonaist, was dark, intense and tortured, but it does depict a man teetering on the edge of chaos and collapse in a borderline-anarchic post-Katrina New Orleans. Cage lurches across the city with a lopsided bad-back gait in search of crime lord Xzibit, but mainly just more drugs, and the setting is used to full advantage, from the ramshackle outskirting neighbourhoods towered over by gleaming skyscrapers, to the French quarter trellising and the upscale casinos and hotels frequented by Cage’s prostitute girlfriend, Eva Mendes (given little to do save look hot, but that she’s very good at).
He cheerfully robs her johns of cash and blow until one turns out to have mob connections (a very funny Shea Wigham); simultaneously his gambling debts are mounting, he loses his crime scene witness and an old woman he manically threatened in a nursing home sics the IA on him. That the resolving of all these problems is eventually whisked through in amusingly perfunctory fashion, could in fact indicate that the film has finally slipped fully into a drug-addled dream state.
The script seems intended for a far more conventional picture, but with Cage and Herzog that was never on the cards. Alongside Cage’s wonderfully manic yet textured performance, the best moments are the hallucinatory Herzog touches: alligator-cam, a lovely surreal sun-streaked vision of iguanas, and the already infamous “Shoot him again, his soul’s still dancing” scene, which is wonderful and perfect and something David Lynch must have wished he’d dreamt up. It’s not all perfect: in a film of such deadpanned exaggeration it’s a shame that past-master Jennifer Coolidge doesn’t get to join in (though she does cut a touchingly tragic figure without much script assistance); Val Kilmer is largely sidelined (no great loss); ditto Fairuza Balk as a foxy little traffic cop; and Brad Dourif plays disappointingly if appealingly straight. This may be no great searching probe of a tortured man’s psyche – the closest we get is a visit to his childhood haven, a ramshackle shed full of clutter and imaginary pirates and a lost silver spoon – but it’s a very funny, manic, amoral romp and hugely enjoyable. My fingers are crossed for a sequel.