A few days back I made some negative remarks about Nicolas Cage when I was commenting on his role in "Knowing", also from 2009. Having reinvented himself in recent years as a sensitive action man -- if that's not a contradiction in terms, Cage has received plaudits for his conflicted cop in Werner Herzog's strange policier. I'm afraid that I must disagree with such praise and label his role here as hammy at best, but more of that below.
My initial reaction when I heard that they were 'remaking' Abel Ferrara's movie of the same title from 1994 with Cage replacing Harvey Keitel in the lead role was a resounding 'why bother?', since despite trying on several occasions to warm to that movie, I have never succeeded. However, the resemblance between the two films is only superficial in that both characterise their lead by his addictions to drugs and gambling. But whereas Ferrara's flawed hero is seeking some sort of Catholic redemption, I'll be damned if I know what Cage is seeking, other than possibly more drugs. Herzog, widely perceived as an eccentric director, probably never had any intention of remaking the original drama, but rather decided to use it as a some sort of post-modern satire on police procedural movies veering into black comedy. Subtitled "Port of Call - New Orleans", the film is set in the post-Katrina environment, but with none of city's stereotypical touristy trappings. An uncharacteristic deed to save a drowning prisoner leaves Cage with a bad back, results in his first promotion to lieutenant, and accounts for his growing reliance on strong drugs, a trait he shares with his callgirl galfriend, Eva Mendes. He subsequently becomes involved in the investigation of the murder of a Sengalese drug dealer and his family, and nothing but nothing can stop his determination to solve the case. This includes cruelty to old ladies, illegally aiding drug dealers, bribing a football star with arrest to get him to throw a game (to get his bookie off his back), all the while stuffing his nose with coke (which he obtains by any means going, including raping a young lady), and generally being flaky and strung-out. His performance is in fact so far over the top that it resembles farce more than great acting. This is not his best role since "Leaving Las Vegas", but a self-indulgent fiasco.
There was in fact the occasional titter from the preview audience with whom I viewed the movie (it is to be released here shortly with generally glowing advance reviews from the local movie mags), but I would be hard pressed to agree that this is some sort of comedy. It is far too nasty a film for that. While this may seem something of an unusual outing for Herzog, I think he must have approached the project with his tongue firmly in his cheek to provide his own riff on the conventional fare. However I do not believe that he has found his new Klaus Kinski in Mr. Cage. Kinski was a genuine eccentric, as one may suggest Herzog himself is. Cage's character is not a 'nutter' in the Kinski mold; he is only pretending to be one and not very convincingly to my taste. One can tell that Herzog is doing his best to amuse himself in what very definitely bears little resemblance to your everyday police film by incorporating shots of dead alligators, hallucinated iguanas, and the breakdancing soul of a just-murdered hoodlum into the supposedly gritty action.
The supporting cast is of some interest. I do not see the appeal of Ms. Mendes, whose character has even less attraction than Cage's. However roles for erstwhile star Val Kilmer as another bent cop (somewhat underused here), Fairuza Balk as a highway patrolwoman, voice-of-Chucky Brad Dourif as the bookie, and a nearly unrecognizable Jennifer Coolidge as Cage's alcholic father's second wife serve their purpose. However the attempt to wrap it all up in a happy-ever-after coda rings completely untrue -- as was probably Herzog's intention. One knows that Cage has not really attempted to change his ways and that he will next be playing 'The Bad Captain'!