A lithe snake skims through the watery shadows of the post-Katrina debris. This is not only the first appearance of a menagerie of reptiles peppered throughout Werner Herzog’s extension of the Bad Lieutenant brand, but it’s an early indication that this is a completely different beast to Abel Ferrara’s nihilistic original.
This is a gracefully haphazard movie that’s shed the skin of its forbear and contextually rooted its story in a society as fragile and abandoned as its characters.
That sounds like the sort of rambling nonsense a crack-pipe smoking Nic Cage might spout during the movie. Either way, it’s bonkers brilliance of the highest order.
Terence McDonagh (Cage) is our anti-hero; an unapologetic, drug addled, gambling addicted detective investigating the murder of Senegalese immigrants. Injured while performing the rare heroic feat of rescuing a prisoner as the Mississippi tide was rising, he makes no excuses as he manipulates the corrupt system for his own gains. Staving off debt, all the while making things worse by feeding the habit of his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), Terence must juggle unco-operative witnesses, Internal Affairs, and his own damaged psyche, just to stay alive.
There are many reasons why this works: it’s a procedural thriller that’s dissected with moments of hallucinogenic insanity – a road traffic accident that offers the point-of-view of a watching alligator, an iguana that appears to be the focal point of a crime-scene. Is it a literal chasing of the dragon or another example of Herzog’s penchant for man vs nature? The lizards observing proceedings with disdain while they freely roam the landscape oblivious to the self-destruction of man? It’s not entirely clear.
What is “crystal” is that Cage is finally back on form, no longer being acted off the screen by his ever-changing hairpiece. Coupled with his off-kilter Kick-Ass showing, this twitchy, unhinged and jet-black comedic performance holds the attention in a way that he hasn’t since Leaving Las Vegas. Never sure whether to sympathise with his self-inflicted plight, you are always intrigued by which direction it might skew off in. Who else could utter lines like “shoot him again, his soul’s still dancing” in such a maddening way? This is his niche.
Mendes is also sultrily successful, oozing sexuality while hinting at a femme fatale that may or may not manifest. She provides a tarnished motivation befitting of a “hero” like Terence, and the two are utterly believable as the dysfunctional couple.
It’s certainly one of Herzog’s more accessible films (after Rescue Dawn) but it channels a madcap vibe similar to that of Fear and Loathing that may alienate the mainstream. Thankfully it makes it the guaranteed cult classic it’s clearly destined to be.