Well, I think I’ve recovered adequately from this film to say a few words about it. First, the story (of which there is little). Terence McDonagh is with his partner, Stevie (played by Val Kilmer), in a flooded building in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. The two are standing safely above water, looking down on a criminal trapped behind a barred window, water up to his neck. And the water is rising fast. Stevie is a bad cop. He wants to watch the criminal drown. What makes Stevie bad is that Terence is just a little better. When Terence sees the criminal pray for his life and bless himself, Terence dives into the water. Doing the right thing kills his back.
The next scene, Terence is a given a prescription for Vicodin–a powerfully addictive back pain medication (Chevy Chase, Jerry Lewis, Taylor Swift). It begins to go downhill from there. We soon see Terence snorting coke. We do not see, nor are we told, how Terence got from one stage of addiction to the next, he is now “bad.” And, for those familiar with Ferrara’s 1992 film, it only gets worse. Terence is on the case of a five-murder homicide. Once again, we are given no details. This ain’t The Wire, which painstakingly charts and maps every inch of east Baltimore, spots and identifies all interested parties. In Herzog’s film, there’s just a homicide–payback for dealing on some other guy’s territory (we find out who is responsible for the murders, of course, but we don’t really care). A material witness materializes (he literally pops through a window) and is put under Terence’s care. Terence takes the witness (a young boy) to a casino in Biloxi (oh, I guess Terence is a gambling addict) and loses him.
Herzog is rather clumsy with plot, but that’s one of the really fun things about this film. It does away with the annoying little details that audiences “need” in order to understand what the fuck is going on. Herzog, perhaps impatiently, wants things to get crazy. His camera doesn’t tell a technically coherent story. His camera is more like a microscope–you can’t see the big picture, you can’t see where the fuck you’re going. But what you do see, with frightening and even comic clarity, is crazy intensity. Terence is pissed off he’s lost his material witness. Terence never gets his material witness back, but he does find out where he went. How he manages to get the information (from an overprotective grandmother) is about the best goddamn thing in the film.
A few scenes fall flat, such as a scene (lifted from Ferarra’s film) where Terence stops and searches (illegally) a couple who have just emerged from a nightclub. He finds some drugs (not much) and proceeds to have a little fun at their expense. Since I’ve seen this before, it’s not at all as rough and ugly as it should be. When the bad lieutenant of Ferarra’s film pulls over two young women and–well, you remember. It’s ugly. Herzog goes more crazy than ugly (gator-cam? breakdancing? iguanas lip-synching to Engelbert Humperdinck?) Though I have to say, this is an ugly looking film. Maybe it was the print, but everything is washed-out. Dull green, gray, brown, with lots of natural light (what little there is) and soft focus.
Cage is terrific. I can’t quite understand the change in his delivery (about mid-way through, Terence is suddenly talking like Michael Corleone in Godfather, Part III), but his looniness is never phony or deliberate or forced. The much-talked-about iguana scene pretty much sums up Cage’s performance. He’s with the iguanas. He’s there. He gets it. And he sustains that feeling, that sense of the fucked-up, for the whole film.
mild spoiler: I’ll leave others to discuss the film’s ending–which isn’t nearly as wretched as Ferarra’s. But the final shot is good, and it more or less makes up for the 5 or so minutes that come before it. All in all, the film doesn’t make me sick, sad, or scared. It makes me wish I had a lucky crack pipe.