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The Bad Lieutenant

Jeremy Clarke

Port of call - New Orleans
Directed by Werner Herzog
Certificate 18, 122 minsĀ­

A remake of Abel Ferrara's controversial 1992 New York drama The Bad Lieutenant by Werner Herzog sounds initially like a really, really bad idea. But this is more of a remodelling, by the same producer, Ed Pressman, to create a long-term franchise exploring a core concept through different protagonists. Both films represent striking, idiosyncratic directorial visions; both feature career-defining performances from their leads (then Harvey Keitel, now Nicolas Cage). It bodes well for future reworkings. The pervasive Catholicism and Jesus apparitions make no appearance in the new version, however.

The detective Terence McDonagh (Cage) has back problems after rescuing a convict from drowning in a locked cell during the New Orleans floods ater Katrina. Prescription drugs lead to less legal substances. He is in a relationship with a call girl (Eva Mendes) and develops lucrative deals with drug-dealing gangsters. He and his partner in the force (Val Kilmer on good form) are on a murder case where the victims are five Senegalese immigrants, kids among them.

As Terence goes about all this, he sees a lot of things that aren't there. The most memorable scene features iguanas, in big close up between Cage and the camera. Others include the shooting of a black gangster who breakdances when the viewer expects him to be severely wounded, if not dead.

While there is much hilarious material, this isn't a comedy (except in the classical sense of having a happy ending - and with that one should probably take into account the subjective nature of the drug-addled narrative). Cage is completely out there on the edge with his best performance in years (although his smaller part in the recent Kick-Ass isn't bad either) - recalling his glory days in Leaving Las Vegas, Vampire's Kiss and Wild At Heart.

Publicity material has Herzog waxing lyrical about the bliss of evil, but while this undeniably great soundbite may have been pertinent to the film's making, it seems less so to its viewing. In mining the depths of human depravity - which also marked the earlier, grimmer version of the film  - Herzog and Cage have struck a rich vein of humour. Yet they're equally capable of the transcendent and the meditative: witness the very last (one shot) scene with Cage and an acquaintance backed by a huge fish tank. The proceedings overall are at once an exciting journey into the possibilities of the cinematic medium and a penetrating, impressionist essay on the human condition.

So, it sounded terrible but turned out to be terrific; quite possibly, in fact, the most brilliant politically incorrect cinematic outing we'll see for some time. Don't miss.

Jeremy Clarke