There was a point in time when remakes and reboots weren’t as prevalent as they are now — in 2009 the offerings included Star Trek, Fame, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, The Taking of Pelham 123, and James Cameron’s epic mash-up of two films, Dances With Wolves and The Smurfs and the Magic Flute — sorry, Avatar. We’re just kidding about the last one. Sort of.
In fact, this remake frenzy is so bad that it’ll make any respectable moviegoer wistful for the sequel-itis era of the ’80s, when First Blood begat Rambo: First Blood Part II begat Rambo III.
But eyebrows were raised within the film-geek community when it was announced that one infamously eccentric filmmaker would be giving his own interpretation of another infamously eccentric filmmaker’s work — mad German director Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn, My Best Fiend) was going to helm a remake of Bronx director Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Upon the announcement that Herzog would redo Ferrara’s 1992 film, the German auteur was immediately subjected to the Yankee’s venom. When it was initially announced, Ferrara did some venting at a Cannes press conference, saying, “As far as remakes go … I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” Herzog’s initial reaction was equally feisty: “Who is Abel Ferrara?”
Something of a German answer to Sam Peckinpah, Werner Herzog loves oddball characters that rival his own quirks. In the past, the director has painted the celluloid with a documentary about a bear enthusiast (Grizzly Man) and his own rodent-inspired interpretation of vampirism (Nosferatu: The Vampyre), starring his pal Klaus Kinski.
A classic in the corrupt cop sub-genre, the original Bad Lieutenant followed a drug-addled lieutenant with a little gambling problem through the streets of New York as he investigated the rape of a nun. Like a heavy-handed morality play decorated with Catholic imagery, the controversial film was a tour-de-force for the star, Harvey Keitel.
Herzog’s remake, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, plays out like a B-movie that openly embraces the grimy settings and bizarre dialogue that sleazily compliments its plot. And taking on the title role this time around is none other than Nicolas Cage.
Right from the start, the viewer is shown just how corrupt Cage’s Terence McDonagh is when he steals dirty pictures from a fellow officer’s locker and calls a prisoner “shit turd.” His downward spiral only goes downwarder when an on-duty back injury leads him to a perilous Vicodin addiction. It’s only a matter of time before McDonagh finds solace in a vial of crack or a bump of heroin. It’s like a very special episode of Blossom. OK. Not that bad.
McDonagh’s addiction leads him to begin raiding the drug stash in the police evidence room, placing wild bets with his nervous bookie (played by Brad Dourif), and acquiring a prostitute that he can call his own, Frankie (Eva Mendes). In the midst of all this addiction and dishonesty, McDonagh is investigating the murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants.
But it doesn’t take long before the investigation is pushed out of the spotlight by McDonagh’s many exploits and misadventures. His revolutionary interview tactics range from rolling a joint with a suspect to cutting off a senior’s oxygen supply when she and her caretaker stonewall him. And when he drives out to Biloxi to pick up his special lady, he brings along and then loses a key witness. He also forces a star athlete to throw a game.
Much like Ferrara’s original, the symbolism here is blatant and subtlety is nonexistent. In lieu of crucifixes and Keitel’s swinging manhood, we’re treated to mini-music video of iguanas and Cage’s hunched saunter.
But make no mistake, Nicolas Cage makes this film. His performance as a tool knee-deep in hookers, blow, and the cinematic cliches therein is equally balanced with random bursts of weirdness.
Unlike the current crop of remakes, Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant adds another dimension to Ferrara’s original. Film junkies will see a smart commentary on a well-worn genre while the casual viewer will see a nice diversion at the movies.