The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (18)

Ryan Gilbey salutes a darkly eccentric reimagining of
a corrupt cop classic.

To say Abel Ferrara was not overjoyed that his punishing 1992 film Bad Lieutenant was being remade would be an understatement. Even the news that the fearless Werner Herzog would occupy the director's chair, with Nicolas Cage stepping into Harvey Keitel's shoes as the corrupt junkie cop, didn't placate him. "I hope these people die in hell," Ferrara said. "I hope they're all in the same streetcar and it blows up." I know what you're thinking: why doesn't he say what he really feels?

With Mr Grumpypants so sorely in need of a giggle, it's a shame he won't lower himself to see The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, which puts in an unforeseen but vigorous bid to be the comedy of the year. A remake it most certainly isn't. Sure, Terence McDonagh (Cage) displays superficial similarities to the nameless New York police lieutenant in Ferrara's film. While most cities have a crime problem, McDonagh is the crime problem; he'll snort or extort anything that stands still for more than 10 seconds.

But Herzog's movie punches home McDonagh's essential goodness from the off, whereas Ferrara only permitted his protagonist a shot at redemption once he'd endured a vision of hell that made Dante's Inferno look like Center Parcs. Here, the original picture's intense Catholic guilt is stripped away, leaving an arbitrary universe in which suffering and salvation are unconnected. When good luck falls in McDonagh's lap, it's not because he's done anything to deserve it.

In the first scene, McDonagh rescues a prisoner from police cells that have flooded following Hurricane Katrina. This act of heroism leaves him with chronic back pain and the lopsided gait of Richard III. But no matter how much McDonagh behaves like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet saddled with Tony "Scarface" Montana's coke habit, the film keeps zeroing in on his inner Dixon of Dock Green. He reprimands a colleague for roughhousing suspects, and dog-sits his father's Labrador, even bringing the pooch along on a road trip with a cheery prostitute named Frankie (Eva Mendes).

Anyone concerned that a tart with a heart can still make it on to cinema screens in 2010 should remember that Herzog is in the business of interrogating genre, not reinforcing it. No spoof could better expose the lunacies of the police procedural drama, or the masochis-tic excesses of Ferrara's overrated original. William Finkelstein's screenplay starts out on the straight and narrow: an immigrant family has been gunned down in their New Orleans home, and McDonagh must protect the delivery boy who witnessed the massacre. But when the kid skips town, that storyline leaves with him. From then on, McDonagh's woes take centre stage.

How many of the film's inconsistencies are down to its ribbing of the crime genre remains moot. Should we ask why Frankie doesn't worry that McDonagh's fondness for harassing her clients and stealing their drugs might be bad for business? Or how McDonagh manages to be so efficient when he's high? (He pulls off a raid single-handedly and without firing a shot, while his underlings are still pointing their guns at the front door.) Probably not. Herzog is, as ever, a law unto himself. Any other director would surely have been sectioned for including footage of McDonagh's hallucinations, which feature a breakdancing spirit and gaudily coloured iguanas mouthing along to "Please Release Me". You know you're watching a film of incomparable eccentricity when a karaoke reptile is not the freakiest thing on screen.

That honour goes to Cage, who has never been riper. Not since Raising Arizona or Vampire's Kiss over two decades ago has his Jack-in-the-box spontaneity been more fruitfully exploited. With Herzog's film, he proves he's still a master physical comedian. Just don't ask me to choose his most delirious moment. It might be the scene in which he runs an electric razor over his face while intimidating an elderly woman. It could be his methodical dance as he tries to locate the CCTV blind-spot in a police evidence room. More likely it's the joy in his eyes when he spooks a hardened drug-dealer by announcing: "This is my lucky crack-pipe. You don't have a lucky crack-pipe?"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next