Lionsgate // 1992 // 96 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 4th, 2010
Gambler. Thief. Killer. Cop.
"I'm sorry, Lord. I've done so many bad things."
The Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel, Pulp Fiction) is about as corrupt as they come. He wears a badge indicating that his job is to protect and serve the general public, but he rarely even bothers with that dull task. The Lieutenant would rather spend his time gambling, drinking, indulging in threesomes with prostitutes, robbing local businessmen, selling drugs and doing just about any other sort of unethical thing that can bring him any measure of pleasure or personal gain. He's gotten away with this for a long time, but lately he's been slipping. His drug use has gotten out-of-control, his gambling debts are piling up at an alarming rate and his co-workers are finding it increasingly difficult to look away.
Things start to change for The Lieutenant when he's given a new case to work on. Traditionally, he puts very little effort into such work, but this one resonates with him. A nun was brutally raped by some local thugs, and The Lieutenant finds himself desiring revenge. However, that task is going to be more difficult than he imagined: astonishingly, the nun has decided to forgive the young men and refuses to describe them. Her actions inspire a deep personal crisis within The Lieutenant, as guilt starts to overwhelm him and his desire for redemption begins to grow. Is there any possibility of salvation for this very, very bad man?
I can't really call myself much of an Abel Ferrara fan, though I admit that I've tried to be. For years, I kept hearing great things about so much of Ferrara's work, but every time I would check out one of his films it would leave me feeling a bit ambivalent (even the much-lauded King of New York). Films that played as striking, gritty masterpieces for some played like recycled, somewhat uninspired crime flicks to me. The major exception as far as I'm concerned is Bad Lieutenant, a cinematic gut-punch that's as effective today as was when it was released nearly two decades ago. While I find Werner Herzog's subversive remake slightly more rewarding, there's no denying the raw power of the original Bad Lieutenant.
Herzog has suggested his version is about the ecstasy of evil. If that's so, then Ferrara's version is about the agony of evil. The Lieutenant gets absolutely everything he wants: money, drugs, women, and so on, but we never see even the faintest hint of happiness on his face. His life is one of misery and self-loathing; his behavior seems less a source of enjoyment than a way of simply numbing himself. Consider the infamous scene in which a threesome with two prostitutes ends with Keitel wandering around nude in a tortured stupor, crying desperately with his arms stretched out as if he's hanging on a cross.
Speaking of which, the heavy dose of Catholic guilt and religious symbolism in the film make it feel like a cinematic relative of Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (which boasts another great Keitel performance). One of the film's strongest moments comes late in the proceedings, as the devastated Lieutenant sobs angrily and pours his heart out to a vision of Jesus Christ. It's a risky move on Ferrara's part that could have felt awfully gimmicky, but Keitel's emotions are so unnervingly raw in the scene that it works.
For all of its virtues, the film is ultimately a showcase for its star, as Keitel turns in a performance that surely ranks as one of the best of the 1990s (not to mention Keitel's own career). The actor holds nothing back, unflinchingly guiding The Lieutenant to depraved depths and practically earning the film its NC-17 with the sheer ferocity of his work. Still, it's not surprising that the performance wasn't even nominated for anything other than an Independent Spirit Award; his work is too squirm-inducing to celebrate. Can you imagine the Oscars showing a clip of the creepy sequence in which Keitel harasses two teenage girls late at night?
Bad Lieutenant arrives on Blu-ray sporting an adequate 1080p/1.78:1 AVC encoded transfer, which is about as good as it can be given the limitations of the actual film. This is a small, low-budget production with an intentionally drab, dingy look, so this flick isn't exactly going to demonstrate the greatest virtues of high definition. There's pretty heavy grain at times, a few flecks and specks still linger, darker scenes can be a little murky and some scenes are very soft. Still, for the most part the film looks the way it was intended and when the image has an opportunity to shine (consider some of the daytime crime investigation scenes), it does. The audio is solid enough, with very little in the way of complex sound design. This is a dialogue-driven flick for the most part and thankfully everything in that department is perfectly clear. A couple of musical selections allow the bass to kick in on occasion. The supplements are ported over from the previous special edition DVD: an excellent commentary with Ferrera and Director of Photography Ken Kelsch, a restrospective documentary featuring interviews with almost everyone (save Keitel, sadly) and a trailer.
It's still a difficult film to stomach, but Bad Lieutenant is a rewarding experience for viewers willing to take it on. The Blu-ray isn't exactly remarkable, but it still ranks as a considerable improvement from the DVD. The low price point makes the idea of upgrading a considerably more palatable one, too.
The Lieutenant is very, very guilty, but this film certainly isn't.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17