Lionsgate // 1992 // 96 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // July 31st, 2009
Gambler. Thief. Junkie. Killer. Cop.
"Vampires are lucky. They can feed on others. We got to eat away at ourselves."
He is a New York City cop, a lieutenant. Not just any NYPD lieutenant, he's the Bad Lieutenant. Corruption, excess, and self-loathing ooze from him, like a pustule. He's a disgrace not only to his badge, but to his species, and he seems to know it -- and not to care. He's been at this a long time, being a cop and being a disgrace, and it shows. The other cops seem to know, but he's one of theirs, and whether it's his position or his history -- we never know -- he's afforded respect and considerations, even when he almost gets caught lifting drugs from a crime scene.
The Lieutenant is slipping, badly, but it's easier to look the other way, even though it's obvious that he is constantly "under the influence" of something. What's worse is he's also racked up a massive gambling debt and is refusing to pay off the bookie.
He's getting through the routine work -- murders he has little interest in solving, thefts, and the like -- and hoping for the miracle that will wipe out his debt. Then he gets a new case, a particularly heinous one: a young nun, raped and brutalized by a pair of thugs.
Even the Lieutenant is affected by this horror. He wants to solve this case and bring the thugs to justice -- his justice. But the nun refuses to co-operate. She even knows who the assailants are, but she's forgiven them, and she believes it's up to Jesus to punish them.
This throws the Lieutenant into crisis -- a crisis of faith, and of conscience, something he'd forgotten he had. Is there a chance for this very bad man to redeem himself, or has he already spiraled too far down?
Abel Ferrara has been making great, gritty films in, around, and about New York City for more than 30 years, the kinds of films that attract a loyal cult following rather than universal recognition. Ferrara's films are often brutal experiences, unrelentingly violent and seamy mixtures of adrenaline and emotion. While Ferrara might lack the flash and craftsmanship of Martin Scorsese, the raw power of his films often rivals that of his fellow New Yorker.
Bad Lieutenant may not be Ferrara's masterpiece -- that would be King of New York -- but it's an outstanding piece of work with a career-best performance by Harvey Keitel.
Keitel is a great actor who's been giving memorable performances since his breakthrough in Scorsese's 1973 classic Mean Streets, but he's never gotten the acclaim as contemporaries such as Robert DeNiro (a frequent co-star) or Al Pacino. Perhaps it's because Keitel was never as selective about his projects. He's taken small roles in significant films such as Taxi Driver and significant roles in small films such as Fingers and Corrupt. Famously fired from Apocalypse Now for "creative differences" with Francis Ford Coppola and miscast in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, in the early '90s, Keitel appeared in a string of successful, high-profile films, including Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Bugsy, Sister Act, and Thelma & Louise. It was during this period that he made Bad Lieutenant.
Keitel's intensity is a perfect fit for Ferrara's fevered style. The actor owns this one, from his first scene -- a profanity-laced car ride with his young sons -- through every scene of excess and degradation that follows. This is bravura acting, "shameless" in the best possible way, a punishing and exhaustingly physical performance filled with bile and vitriol. Keitel doesn't just bark; he digs into this character, getting under his skin. Bad Lieutenant could have been just another vice and violent exploitation picture; in the hands of Ferrara and Keitel, it becomes a modern tragedy.
In the film's most notorious scene, a drunk and stoned Lieutenant parties with a pair of prostitutes. At one point, he slow dances, tenderly, with one of the women. The scene ends with Keitel, nude, flailing and moaning pathetically. The scene is scored with Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love," which also plays over the inevitably sad closing scenes. Thirty years earlier, in Mean Streets, Keitel also slow danced, tenderly, with a drunken woman to "Pledging My Love." In that film, he was Charlie, a young man trying to do the right thing by everyone, his whole life ahead of him. The contrast between that fresh and idealistic character and the jaded, broken-down Lieutenant is devastating, and including a song that echoes the earlier film makes this scene heart-wrenching.
Ferrara's camera creeps around a New York City that no longer is, a dank, edgy place of dealers and users, pimps, whores, and johns, garbage filled streets and decay. Ken Kelsch, Ferrara's director of photography, does a remarkable job capturing the city-as-nightmare in its late-century, pre-Disney stark-and-darkness glory. This is guerilla filmmaking at its finest -- when people in the background stare directly at the camera, it's not because they are overeager SAG members, but because they are members of the public who just happened to be there when the scenes were shot. Ferrara and Kelsch turn what could have been liabilities into art, making extraordinary use of real, if sometimes imperfect, locations -- dimly lit streets and hallways, borrowed apartments, a suite at the Mayflower Hotel (Mickey Rourke's suite, they say during the commentary). A pair of scenes featuring co-writer and real-life addict Zoe Lund (Ms. 45) doing heroin with the Lieutenant are painfully claustrophobic because of the constrained shooting space, which heightens the impact.
This is the third release of Bad Lieutenant, and after two bare bones editions, we finally get some worthwhile extras.
There's an extensive "making of" featurette, "It All Happens Here," that covers everything from the initial notion for the script through the production, and the film's exhibition at Cannes and its life on home video. This is no backslapping puff piece. It's a fascinating and honest documentary on outsider filmmaking in the pre-digital age, with input from Ferrara and most of the production crew. The documentary offers small tributes to writer/actress Zoe Lund and writer/actor Victor Argo, both long-time collaborators with Ferrara who have died, Lund's drug-related death at age 37 particularly sad, and disturbing in light of her appearance in the film. We also hear from cop-turned-actor Bo Dietl, who was an investigator on the real-life case that inspired Bad Lieutenant and had a feature role in the film.
A feature-length commentary with Ferrara and Kelsch is enlightening if a bit scattershot. Ferrara tends to ramble a bit here, though his stories are pretty entertaining. He also has some funny observations about the 2009 "sequel," Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Kelsch's recollections and insights make for an especially good listen. Particularly interesting is Kelsch's assessment of the video transfer. Apparently, as shot, the image was even darker than it appears here. Somewhere in the film's home video history, someone jacked up the brightness a bit, giving it what Kelsch describes as "that TV look." I can't call this a terrible transfer, but it's not an especially strong one, either. Had Kelsch not commented on it, I would have just thought this was a slightly above-mediocre transfer of a low-budget film. Well-lit scenes look alright, but blacks and whites are murky and bland, and contrast is weak. I'm guessing this is the transfer that was used for one or both of the previous releases from 1998 and 2001. The DVD case claims the audio is a 5.1 surround track, but I believe this is a mistake. I'm pretty certain this is the mono track that was on the previous releases. It sounds fine, not artificially enhanced. For some reason, whoever designed the front of the DVD case left the word "junkie" off the tagline.
No Harvey? Good as this package is, it just doesn't seem complete without some input from Keitel. I know that like many actors, Keitel is not always the best interviewee, but this is his movie, and not even getting a few words from him during the "making of" detracts a bit from this special edition.
Bad Lieutenant is a riveting urban horror movie, and Lionsgate has provided some fine supplemental material with this release. It's a shame that after putting together this nice slate of extras, they didn't go the extra mile and remaster the picture. Still, this is a release worth owning. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2009 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17
* Abel Ferrara Virtual Library