Bad Lieutenant (1992)
By: Julian on March 21, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Hopscotch Entertainment (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1:85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 96 minutes
The Movie
Director: Abel Ferrara
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Frankie Thorn
Screenplay: Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Abel Ferrara, Zoe Lund
Country: USA
Show me how you suck a guy's cock…

Abel Ferrara's tour de force of shocking, punchy filmmaking was unleashed with Bad Lieutenant , starring Harvey Keitel in the title role.

Ferrara and Keitel bring us the Lieutenant, a nameless cop who's a real fuck-up – despite being a father and a man of the law, Keitel has no qualms snorting coke after dropping off his kids, shooting up while on duty, roughing up criminals and jacking off to a pair of girls he catches driving unlicensed, while they feign fellatio. The Lieutenant is one of the most corrupt, contemptible cops on the beat and he doesn't hesitate to dish out his own brutal vigilante justice regardless of his assailants' innocence. But Keitel finds himself grappling with his own morality as he investigates the brutal rape of a nun (Frankie Thorn) who, instead of taking his approach of brutal retribution, forgives her assailants unconditionally. The Lieutenant finds himself in a difficult situation – he has finally encountered a human being who is stronger than him (and one who, despite his increasingly flawed ethics, can't belt into agreement), thus commencing his difficult and stumbling road to a kind of vague redemption. 

Move, you cocksucker. Move. I'd like to blow your fuckin' face apart.

Shot in eighteen days, Bad Lieutenant gives new meaning to the adjective 'gritty'. Ferrara really drags us through the gutter with this one, and an exceedingly competent script by Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Zoë Lund and Ferrara himself perfectly captures the bile the Lieutenant spews forth. Essentially, it's a story of deliverance, with Keitel's Lieutenant gradually finding himself in a law-abiding world, a world that he should be habiting but has abandoned a long time ago. And, as in many Ferrara films, the director liberally showers the audience with religious metaphor – from the blatant ('Where the fuck are you?' the Lieutenant heart-wrenchingly pleads to a crucifix) to the more refined, where Keitel goes full frontal in a Christ-like pose. Religious symbolism here tends to become overbearing, with Ferrara going all-out allegorically.

What the fuck are you? A drug counsellor or a drug dealer? If you don't deal your own product, what kind of businessman are you?

The Lieutenant's quote probably best represents the kind of critical backlash Ferrara received in some circles after Bad Lieutenant.  The heavy theme of repentance, coupled with the holy man (or, in this case, woman) leading the lost onto the right path has led to some critics slamming the picture as the ultimate Catholic guilt-trip, with the director falling back onto his shock exploitation roots when the proceedings tend to become dull. Not exploitationy enough for it to be held in high esteem by the trash lovers, but too subversive and grimy for those who like their arthouse artsy – the film received an NC-17 classification in the States upon its initial release, a commercial kiss-of-death. Regardless, Bad Lieutenant was relatively successful on its very small scale, raking in just under $50 000 on its opening weekend, playing on a mere two screens. It went on to make over two million, roughly double its budget.

The film was one of the beautiful Zoë Lund's (nee Tamerlis) last roles before she died of drug-related heart failure in 1999, aged 37. She made her writing debut with Bad Lieutenant, and is most well-known for having starred in Ferrara's rape-and-revenge classic Ms. 45 twenty-one years earlier. Bad Lieutenant is also one of the few Ferrara films not scribed by Nicholas St John, the poor man's Paul Schrader, who worked on his original classics The Driller Killer and King of New York, as well as much of the director's later work. And as far as Ferrara himself is concerned, he never made another film this great again. However, you've got to hand it to him – for a director whose feature debut was an X-rated feature titled Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy, he fashioned an impressive oeuvre over the years. Despite buckling later on in his career, Ferrara remains one of the most exciting mavericks around, uninfluenced by the beckoning (though to say he was beckoned is perhaps generous) of Hollywood and sticking to his guns.

Harvey Keitel's performance is absolutely powerhouse, and it's probably one of the best of his career, alongside Mr White in Reservoir Dogs and Charlie in Mean Streets. Starring in this was ballsy on Keitel's behalf, and when you consider the bloke was up for an Oscar the year before – an accolade not usually associated with actors who explicitly portray drug-abusing sex fiends – you really have to applaud the actor's sizeable cojones (if you'll forgive the pun). Keitel's Lieutenant showcased the actor's sheer versatility and, above all, his unending faith to the indie flick. With one foot in Hollywood and one foot with the B-genre, Harvey Keitel is a commendable asset to American filmmaking.

While not a particularly violent film, Bad Lieutenant is such a nihilistic, amoral piece of work that it genuinely encapsulates the cliché, 'you'll be wanting to take a hot shower afterwards'. And by the finale, when Keitel is purged of his sins in the only real way possible, we get down to the real motive behind Ferrara's work – a story of failed redemption, but redemption nonetheless – and the vague hope that no one is too far gone. A must-see.
1:85:1 aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancement. The picture is relatively good, but the colours tend to be on the dull side.
English 2.0 mono. Given that Hopscotch could have sourced a nice crisp 5.1 track from the French release of this film, the wall of sound hurling from the speakers knowingly sucks a massive amount of balls.
Extra Features
Absolutely nothing. It's a pity given that this seems to have been sourced from the US Artisan release, even though the French R2 disc has a feature-length making-of doco, scene introductions and numerous other features. Fail.
The Verdict
A sub par release of a truly great film. While the direction and script is all top-notch here, the real star of the show is Keitel – a consummate professional at what he does, and his role as the vacant and morally bleak Lieutenant is one of the greatest performances of the past twenty odd years. While the religious symbolism tends to veer Ferrara precariously close to Catholic propaganda mode, he never quite falls into that pretentious abyss, and the Lieutenant's newfound Catholicism just manages to pass by as upsettingly tragic, rather than trite. Regardless, this remains one of the director's finest pictures and is absolutely essential, even for Keitel's performance alone.
Movie Score
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