Werner Herzog’s latest film bears almost no relation to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 picture of the same name, but takes the basic outline and twists it into something far more entertaining. (Asked whether his film was a remake of Ferrara’s, Herzog apparently replied: “I don’t feel like [I’m] doing an homage to Abel Ferrara because I don’t know what he did… I’ve never seen a film by him; I have no idea who he is. Is he Italian? Is he French? Who is he?”)
In Nicolas Cage, Herzog has found his new Klaus Kinski. The versatile actor gives his best performance since Adaptation as a corrupt cop with a penchant for cocaine, painkillers and gambling—and a soft spot for a coke-addled hooker with a heart of gold, played by Eva Mendes. After putting his back out, he becomes addicted to Vicodin and gradually moves on to abusing harder and more mentally-destabilising substances.
Investigating the execution-style killing of a drug-dealing Sengalese family in post-Katrina nola, he’ll stop at nothing to feed his habit and track down whoever might have committed the murders. In the process he roughs up a druglord and gang kingpin played by Xzibit and—in a scene that is one of Herzog’s greatest ever achievements as a filmmaker, and, in terms of Cage’s acting prowess is on par with the “bees!” scene in The Wicker Man remake—hallucinates iguanas crawling across a coffee table. (The cinematography and camerawork here and in related, reptile-oriented scenes elsewhere in the film is nothing short of inspired.) A stodgy Val Kilmer pops up every so often as a (sort of) good cop antidote to Cage’s (extremely) bad cop, and Stiffler’s mom (a.k.a. Jennifer Coolidge, Best in Show), looking a bit worse for wear, plays a drunkard.
The script, by William Finkelstein—a talented, long-time TV crime-drama/police procedural writer whose credits range from NYPD Blue and Law & Order through to L.A. Law in the early ’90s—is brilliantly concise, and its dialogue exhibits a post-Wire ethos inasmuch as it’s not contemptuous of its audience: Finkelstein throws around street slang with aplomb, and doesn’t demonize or ghettoize any of his characters.
Perhaps the best thing about the film (and what enables Cage to awake from his B-grade stupor and deliver such an intense, focussed performance) is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously: whereas something like Dominic Sena’s remake of Gone in 60 Seconds was self-consciously trying to impress its (teenage) audience, Herzog’s film feels wholly organic, like it was destined to keep its audience rapt without even lifting a finger. This is obvious all the way through, right down to its Lynchian penultimate scene, which concludes with the awesome line “Shoot him again; his soul’s still dancing.”
This has the makings of a modern cult classic—it’s a real shame distributors were unwilling or unable to give it a theatrical run here—and to top it all off, it’s adorned with one of the best taglines of all time: “The only criminal he can’t catch is himself.”