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Werner Herzog Takes ‘Bad Lieutenant’ for a Southern-Fried Spin

When the trailer for Werner Herzog's upcoming Nicolas Cage vehicle, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," showed up on YouTube last Thursday, movie buffs were baffled. Ostensibly a remake of Abel Ferrara's harrowing 1992 cop drama with Harvey Keitel in the lead role, the new version appears to spin the source material into the […]

When the trailer for Werner Herzog's upcoming Nicolas Cage vehicle, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," showed up on YouTube last Thursday, movie buffs were baffled.

Ostensibly a remake of Abel Ferrara's harrowing 1992 cop drama with Harvey Keitel in the lead role, the new version appears to spin the source material into the unlikely mold of a black comedy.

Cage, as a southern officer with a penchant for crack and promiscuity, widens his eyes and wearily drifts from one mystifying scene to another. Seeking the witness of a crime, he cuts off the oxygen supply of the missing character's grandmother as a means of gaining her cooperation.

Later, answering to a complaint about the incident, Cage defends himself with a faux southern accent almost too false to bear. "I think she might be suffering from a little dime-en-shah," he says, the words sloppily dribbling out of his mouth like honey.

But Cage's issues with pronunciation seem like the least noteworthy aspects of the movie. In other sequences from the trailer, he giggles about his "lucky crack pipe," endures a hallucination about iguanas, and doesn't flinch at the sight of a dead criminal's ghost.

"Shoot him again," he tells his cohorts. "His soul's still dancing."

The whole thing unfolds under the cheery guidance of a harmonica on the soundtrack.

These scenes suggest an extreme comedy tinged with absurdity. Whether the trailer, which concludes with a note that it's "Currently in post-production," accurately represents the tone of the finished product remains to be seen.

A matter of hours after it erupted onto the blogosphere, the original clip came down from YouTube, suggesting that its online presence was premature and the trailer existed solely for investors in the production.

Nevertheless, these brief glimpses certainly imply that Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant" is a far cry from the haunting universe of the first movie. Nothing that Cage does tops Keitel's antics in earlier work, where his character forces two young woman to watch him masturbate in order to avoid a traffic ticket.

The utter strangeness of Herzog's version overwhelms its griminess, and clashes with Ferrara's comparatively grotesque depiction of police corruption.

According to various reports, Herzog never actually saw the first movie. Producer Ed Pressman owned the rights to the "Bad Lieutenant" property and came up with the improbable idea of turning it into a franchise. Herzog became involved after a script had already been written, then added the "Port of Call New Orleans" subtitle and revised the story as he saw fit.

For the director, the new "Bad Lieutenant" owes nothing to its predecessor, and yet he would not know if it did. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 — where I spotted early poster art for Herzog's remake — Ferrara vented his anger. "I hope these people burn in hell," he said, remaining true to the Catholic mores expected of him.

The opposing tendencies of Herzog and Ferrara, those of a dreamer and a realist, provide the basis for what makes the new "Bad Lieutenant" so fascinating. Since the initial script culled from Ferrara's movie, the character has echoes of Keitel's performance, but it also feels consistent with Herzog's canon of fictional work. The result is a hodgepodge of two of the most distinctive independent filmmakers from the last quarter of the twentieth century.

From the quiet poetry of his early 1970s features to his playfully exploratory documentaries, Herzog has always emphasized beauty amid chaos in nature and lost souls. Ferrara's characters are also lost, but often in an unsettling environment marked by urban realism and Catholic guilt.

These ingredients are nowhere to be found in the latest manifestation of "Bad Lieutenant." Herzog mainly appears interested in the southern-fried atmosphere and the sheer looniness of his protagonist. There's no doubt that the revamped "Bad Lieutenant" belongs to Herzog, even as the elements introduced by Ferrara linger beneath the surface.

However, YouTube viewers unfamiliar with both directors will be left with simply another baffling Nicolas Cage performance.

In recent years, the Internet has not been kind to the actor. The widely circulated "Best Scenes of the 'Wicker Man'" revealed the hilariously awful performance at the movie's center, bringing an Academy Award-nominated actor into the realm of parody.

His recent roles in forgettable action remakes like "Bangkok Dangerous" haven't helped his case. It's too early to say what impact "Bad Lieutenant" will have on his career, but at least the project's background suggests a serious effort to produce something different. It's a jolt that Cage desperately needs.

BIO

Eric Kohn is a freelance film journalist and critic whose work regularly appears in indieWIRE, New York Press and several other outlets. His thoughts on new media and film can be found at Screen Rush.