“Bad Lieutenant” was a scuzzy 1992 film by New York City auteur Abel Ferrara that featured a sordid story and one helluva riveting performance from Harvey Keitel as an unlikable cop addicted to gambling, drugs and sex with hookers. Along with “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Piano,” it marked a high point in Keitel’s career and was perhaps his edgiest role.
As such, it needed a remake about as much as Tiger Woods needs to be popping Viagra — there’s just no upside to the idea. Nevertheless, along comes “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans,” a deep-South redo of Ferrara’s Manhattan-set film.
Looking over its various components, the reasons for the film become clearer. There’s Werner Herzog, gifted art-house director (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo”) who’s too off-the-wall to attract much in the way of financing these days; there’s producer Edward Pressman, who produced the first “Bad Lieutenant” film and is always eager to add to his resume of great directors on low budgets; and then there’s actor Nicolas Cage, desperate to regain some serious actor cred after all those popcorn performances in dreck like “National Treasure” and “Ghost Rider.” Basically, story-that-worked-before plus director-with-Cannes-awards plus actor-with-name-recognition equals something you can sell. At least on paper.
And sure enough, many critics have convinced themselves that this is high art, with Herzog the auteur twisting a genre flick to his own ends, creating yet another portrait of a nearly insane obsessive. A more reasonable assessment would be: “Miami Vice” on crack. It’s your basic police procedural drama enlivened with random hallucinatory shots of lizards and dialogue like, “Do fish love dreams?” thrown in to be, well, rather self-consciously arty. Herzog and a crime flick do not make for a comfortable fit.
The story is reminiscent of the original: corrupt, loose cannon detective finds himself surprised to learn he still has a conscience. The film follows Cage’s cocaine-numbed cop as he shakes down nightclubbing couples for drugs (and the sheer thrill of humiliating them), helps himself to coke from the evidence room, and then does even more drugs with his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes). Coupled with this is his surprisingly diligent investigation of a multiple homicide, in which a family of African immigrants — including the children — were brutally gunned down.
Get past the affectations, and there are a few pleasures here. Mendes (“Training Day,” “Sin City”), whose career started as an Aerosmith music-vid babe, is as jaw-droppingly beautiful as ever, while Cage is always entertaining when he’s in wild-eyed mode. (In fact, with his sickly pallor and hunched-over posture, Cage seems to be channeling Klaus Kinski from Herzog’s old vampire flick, “Nosferatu.”)
Herzog does a pretty good job of establishing the decay of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, with his scenes of devastated neighborhoods, whose minority communities are policed by a nearly all-white force. No comment needed here, but the realism is undercut by flourishes that could have come out of a Harmony Korine film, like when a dead gangster’s “soul” emerges from his body and dances jauntily to a little harmonica tune.
As Cage’s detective’s mental state starts to spin out — from the drugs plus medication for his bad back — the story becomes ever more fantastical — a sudden turn of events winds up with every complication in his seemingly ruined life working out magically. This may in fact be just one more crack-pipe dream, as a puzzling final scene hints at. Now that would be truly Herzogian.