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Review: Cage, Herzog make 'Bad' intriguing

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
Nicolas Cage and Val Kilmer size up a crime scene in "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans."
Nicolas Cage and Val Kilmer size up a crime scene in "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans."
  • Nicolas Cage in "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," directed by Werner Herzog
  • Collaboration of two screen eccentrics make film interesting to watch
  • Story is based on 1992 "Bad Lieutenant," with action moved to New Orleans
  • Cage is drug-addicted cop struggling with downward spiral
  • Nicolas Cage
  • Werner Herzog
  • Movies

(CNN) -- The sleaze, drugs and desperation allowed to fester in the heart of New York City in the 1970s and '80s may not have done much to foster civic pride, but it sure proved fertile ground for the movies, from the relative respectability of "Taxi Driver" to the low-budget schlock produced by Larry Cohen ("Q: The Winged Serpent").

Before the city cleaned up its act, Abel Ferrara was probably the last of the breed of the Big Bad Apple indies to find one foothold in the art scene and another in the exploitation sector, a dichotomy reflected head on in the spiritual anguish of Harvey Keitel's depraved cop in 1992's "Bad Lieutenant."

Hooked on crack and deep in gambling debts, Keitel's character looks for salvation -- and financial reward -- by finding the men responsible for the rape of a nun.

It's hardly your typical remake material, but relocated to post-Katrina Louisiana and entrusted to maverick director Werner Herzog and star Nicolas Cage, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" emerges as its own strange beast.

Herzog -- or screenwriter William Finkelstein -- has stripped away all the overt religious baggage and nixed the unpleasant business with the nun. This lieutenant -- Cage is stuck with the banal name Terence McDonagh -- toys with letting a prisoner drown in his cell in the film's first scene, but instead leaps into the floodwater to save him, earning himself a citation for bravery and a severe back injury that soon accounts for his slide into drug dependency.

Not such a bad lieutenant, then? Well, even in the Big Easy he's considered a loose cannon. His instincts are kinder and gentler than Keitel's, but he's still willing to asphyxiate an old lady to get the information he needs out of her nurse (just his luck, the old dame turns out to be a senator's mom).

By then his losing streak is getting out of hand: a murder witness has fled to London, England; his bookie is badgering him in front of his colleagues; and he's reduced to robbing his hooker girlfriend's johns to fuel their coke habit -- another bad career choice, as it transpires. (Eva Mendes plays the girlfriend.)

Herzog is no more interested in the mechanics of detective stories than Ferrara was, but where the New Yorker dug deep into the cop's psychic distress, dredging up a painfully intense intimacy, Herzog is almost disdainful of the material, tilting it closer to farce than tragedy.

Consider, for example, the treatment of drugs. Where Ferrara shows us the lieutenant shooting up in transfixed, empathetic detail, Herzog mostly plays McDonagh's addiction for black comedy, looking for the blind spot between surveillance cameras after a fortuitous posting in the evidence room, or channeling his high into an audaciously courageous bust.

This is also an effect of two very different movie stars' styles: Keitel's method naturalism vs. Cage's mannered expressionism. Cage's performance is something akin to a doodle on his own Oscar-winning alcoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas."

Harvey's lieutenant stared into the abyss, and Nic hallucinates iguanas where there aren't any. Except that, in Herzog's purest and most eccentric touch, we see them, too. In fact, the movie is swimming in reptiles, which may or may not be a comment on the two-legged bottom-feeders populating this murky scenario.

Cool and curt in a properly hard-boiled manner, this quizzical cash-grab pales beside the real thing, but it's enough of a curio to make you wonder where the producers might go next: Guillermo del Toro's "Bad Lieutenant: Tijuana Blues," with his namesake, Benicio? We're there, baby!

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" is rated R and runs 121 minutes. For EW's review, click here.