Nicolas Cage carries this movie to such rewarding effect that his is the most exciting thing to watch, and that is a big task for a film filled with enough other visceral thrills that replacing him would have produced a decent enough film itself. His drug-riddled body supported by his wide stance and sagging shoulders create the most pitiful of characters he has portrayed and, incontrovertibly, the one he was designed for.
The context is post-Katrina New Orleans where the dilapidated environment and overcast skies are clearly depressing the local population. Yet Herzog’s film doesn't simply build a helicopter fly-by of a bunch of shitty buildings then equate these to people’s feelings. Rather, the humans, so affected by their environment, think and act for themselves amidst the socially crumbling landscape. A la Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, Herzog’s characters are victims of their extreme surroundings and if Kinski wasn't twice testament, Cage undoubtedly is. A cop, basically trying to do the right thing, has developed various drug addicttions as a side effect to his stressful job.
It has always been my assertion that a film’s opening frames should be one of the most appropriate and pleasing. This film begins with a snake swimming through the water, revealed to be a flooded jail with one prisoner still locked in his cell. Two creatures, both out of their element. Cage enters, soon to splash into the dirty water, another creature that has not found its place. The final shot finds him, beaten, depraved, f-ed up,and out of it, sitting with his back to a large aquarium housing sharks and salt-water fish. They are all now creatures accustomed to their environment, built for a depressed and dangerous world. It remains to be answered who has won.
Herzog’s non-remake of the 1994 Harvey Keitel version employs a lot of ingeniously placed cinematic experimentation. The first reptile-cam comes out of nowhere, just an alligator on the scene of a highway crash that after a minute, retreats to the grassy banks. Thus the apartment room stakeout that finds an iguana and bearded dragon chilling on a table is a bit less shocking but no less fantastic. A minute or two pass with nothing more than catchy music beneath jump cutting wide-angle close-ups of the two lizards nonchalantly lounging as Cage stares wide eyed from the background. And for the amount of drugs that his character is on, this short reptile interlude could easily be called tame.
The drugs are mostly acquired by hitting up would be criminals that are let off without legal implications. In a lengthy one take, Cage follows a partying couple to their car, holds them up (protected by being a cop), and takes a hit of their goods while demanding the guy watch is girlfriend copulate him on the hood of his car. The pathos of Cage’s policeman is as fitting to his ability as the film’s dark and comedic tone is to its satirical elements. Everything is wrapped up so cleanly, and so quickly, that we are practically waiting for Herzog to dance a jig on screen while thanking us for watching his film. This doesn't happen.
Add this to my favorites list. The film is supported by a self-propelled soundtrack that hits all the right notes at the right moments and in no way makes itself the star. It is a dark film with reserves about casting a strong lighting ratio and plunging into dark blacks and blown out whites. And if I haven’t stated it already, Nicolas Cage is a perfect fit.