Leave it to the irredeemably insane Werner Herzog to submit the most curiously delightful head-scratcher of the festival; a film so appallingly ridiculous on its face that it should come as no surprise that it survives its journey from madness to sublime entertainment fully intact. A crime drama with precious little of either, this in-name-only remake dispenses with the Catholic guilt of its predecessor and instead, embraces the reliably unhinged Nicolas Cage (proving that true genius lies in casting) as a figure of guiltless criminality. As Mr. Cage stated in the film’s post-screening Q&A, Herzog approached this glorious wreck not as a study in sin and redemption, but rather the “glory of evil,” where a man can — and perhaps, should — use his position of authority to satisfy the darker urges we all share. Cage also informed the crowd that, during a mid-shoot wrap party, Herzog insisted that he would never again make another movie unless “his iguanas” could remain on screen for a full five minutes, rather than the cutting room floor. Iguanas, you ask? Though best discovered on your own terms and in your own way, rest assured that said creatures not only get their very own lyrical interlude, but are closely photographed by Herzog himself, who can now lay claim to being the first filmmaker on record to score a POV shot from a lizard. There’s also an alligator, as if there were any doubt.
If it matters, and I can assure you that it does not, the plot (like a bad episode of Kojak with a bit of German engineering) involves brutal drug killings in the Crescent City, as well as a beleaguered police force that appears all-too-willing to take matters into its own hands. Xzibit is the kingpin in question, and he’s just the man you’d want to gun down an entire household in defense of his turf. He kills, but always with a smile. Cage, channeling Richard III by way of Richard Nixon, mumbles, limps, garbles, and twitches his way through a performance that is technically a character, though its claws simply reattach to a body of work that has yet to inhabit a universe with a molecule of subtlety or shading. Eyebrows fully arched and sweat dripping in epileptic frenzy, Cage’s bad cop interrogates, accuses, probes, bribes, and threatens, all in the ragged pursuit of the next high which, thankfully, is never more than fifteen seconds away. Cage smokes crack, snorts coke, dabbles in heroin, and pops any number of pills, though he’s so damned inviting that it’s less a cautionary tale than a masterpiece of comic invention. He even commands a top football recruit to shave a few points for a crucial bet. Not surprisingly, Cage’s mad stomp through this dirty, crime-ridden shithole leads him to a retirement home where, in the pursuit of a justice that long ago left the bayou, he deprives an uncooperative geezer of her oxygen in order to secure information. Needless to say, he’s also pointing a loaded gun at her caretaker’s head. Though both survive, he leaves the pair with hateful words so damned agreeable, they just might become a national motto.
Cage’s growling, and the nearly unbroken fit of hilarity that ensues, is matched scene-for-scene by Eva Mendes as a whore/girlfriend, Brad Dourif as a sleazy bookmaker, Val Kilmer as a puffy, amoral cop, and Jennifer Coolidge playing, well, the umpteenth ditzy scumbag in a career where sobriety and sanity long ago ceased being viable options. And make sure you stay tuned for a final act of such preposterous good fortune that it becomes impossible not to conclude that Herzog wants evil itself to triumph, or at least have bad behavior avoid the lash of moral judgment. Simply put, for all of his evidence tampering, theft, denial of civil rights, cruelty, and unlovable depravity, Cage’s bad lieutenant is a man of action; a force of the very nature Herzog worships with muscular abandon. All the better to be promoted for it. And when he stands tall, a captain in full measure, we remember that last, fatal bust where it all came together. “Shoot him again,” Cage instructs the drug lord regarding a slimy rival. “His soul is still dancing.” And just like that, as the bloody corpse receives yet another bullet, the departed one’s spirit rises forth, kicks into gear, and yes, dances before us. Breakdances, to be exact. And yet we never question the logic. Crap has rarely been so operatic.