Exploitation Retrospect | The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media

Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Live Home Video | Review by Dan Taylor

Bad Lieutenant starring Harvey KietelThis film should quell, once and for all, the heinous rumors that Abel Ferrara will be directing the big-screen version of TV's beloved sitcom, FATHER KNOWS BEST. Unless, of course, they transform Robert Young's lovable dad into a coke-snorting, profanity-spewing scumbag who solves family problems with the business end of a revolver.

BAD LIEUTENANT is an unforgettable film, fresh from the sewer-drenched mind of director/writer Ferrara — who brought us the classics MS. .45, CHINA GIRL and KING OF NEW YORK — and co-writer/supporting actress Zoë Lund. [Ed. Note: Lund died in Paris in May 1999 due to heart failure. You can read Josh Long's interview with Ms. Lund, originally published in ER #37.]

Set in New York City during the waning days of a playoff series between the Mets and the Dodgers, the movie follows the never-named Lieutenant of the title, played with ballsy glee by Harvey Keitel. Keitel, whose career is experiencing somewhat of a rebirth these days, is a cop that has gone beyond dirty, straight into the realm of filthy. Imagine the worst cop you've ever heard of...he's a Boy Scout compared to Keitel's looie.

The token mystery of the story involves the rape of a virginal young nun (imagine Bridget Fonda with a better set)...the Lieutenant, in deep to a bookie and in deeper to the drugs that he's selling and pushing into his body, wants to bring the punks responsible for the brutal crime to justice. All this, despite the fact that the nun has forgiven them, has turned their violence into a (real or imagined) impassioned plea. Filled with religious imagery and visual commentary, it helps to bring the saddlebag of guilt that is a Catholic upbringing to the theater.

The mystery/story to the film is secondary, much in the way that the discovery of the ear is secondary to the real story of BLUE VELVET. Like Kyle MacLachlan's descent into darkness in that vile and violent classic, BAD LIEUTENANT is really about Keitel's attempt to reverse his plummet before he bottoms out completely. He sells drugs, shoots drugs, steals money, gambles excessively, masturbates (the ultimate Catholic crime — sex without pro-creation!), and cheats on his wife, yet wishes to deliver true justice in repayment for the "many bad things" he has done throughout his life.

Those of you expecting a mystery or any insight into the police work involved in pursuing the perpetrators will be sorely disappointed. That side of the character's life doesn't interest Ferrara in the least. Instead, he's much more concerned with pushing the title character into further, more despicable acts against his own person. Devoid of any scenes of the police actually doing anything (they take pictures of dead bodies, question the nun a little and talk baseball alot), BAD LT. lovingly soaks in the seamy side of the city that Ferrara has chronicled so well in his best films (and even in DRILLER KILLER, his most flawed early work).

Gritty and discomforting — the nun's physical rape and Keitel's verbal rape of two big-haired Jersey chicks are extremely unsettling scenes — Ferrara makes effective use of the "no limits" NC-17 rating. Though the film is (ultimately) powerful and is (constantly) disorienting and unsettling, the best reason to see it is for Keitel's rough-hewn performance. Like Gary Oldman's Sid, the ultimate goal seems to be "how fucked up can we get this character before we lose the audience." Amazingly enough, writer, actor and director reel him in at the moment of his deepest desperation, providing some semblance of audience sympathy for this absolute wretch of a human being.

Just writing about it makes me want to get a shower. This is probably the first four star film I've seen that I have no intention of watching again.

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