Directed by Abel Ferrara
Starring Harvey Keitel, Victor Argo, Paul Calderon
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Release Date: July 28, 2009
When it was first released in 1992 Bad Lieutenant was greeted with praise and revulsion, accolades, and protest, nearly everywhere it played. The NC-17 rating bestowed upon it by the Motion Picture Association of America signified that this movie would not be holding anything back and whoever dared to venture into cinemas or into the local video stores (except Blockbuster, which no doubt probably carried a cut down R-rated version) would be in for a soul and brain-scarring experience few films can deliver. To this day it remains one of the seminal films in the independent film revolution of the 1990’s and the high water mark in the careers of director Abel Ferrera and star Harvey Keitel. It defied every conceivable notion of crime drama and character study and gave us a front row seat. For me it’s difficult to put my feelings about the movie into words. A description of the plot of Bad Lieutenant would be moot because this film is not about its plot. We’re treated to a relentless look into the festering wound of a soul that is its title character, and much like an auto accident it’s difficult to look away even when we want to, or think we should.
The central character played by Keitel is a lieutenant in the New York Police Department. During the course of the movie he rarely does any actual police work. In fact, whenever he’s in the company of his fellow detectives (including Pulp Fiction‘s Paul Calderon, Victor Argo of Ferrera’s hard-edged 1989 gangster classic King of New York, and former real-life NYPD homicide detective Bo Dietl) he seems uncomfortable and out of his element. The Lieutenant works alone and doesn’t seem to care much for enforcing the law and in fact is more than happy to abuse his authority in order to satisfy his own depraved vices, mostly of the sexual and narcotic variety. Much like Travis Bickle, the tortured anti-hero of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the Lieutenant would rather see the city burn before he did anything to save it. But what also united Travis and the Lieutenant is their innate desire to do something truly heroic before they meet their maker. The Lieutenant gets his chance when a nun at a church in Spanish Harlem (Frankie Thorn) is violently raped but for some reason known only to her she refuses to name her assailants. No one can understand this, most of all the Lieutenant. A lapsed Catholic, the Lieutenant sneers at the church and only goes merely to fulfill his duty as a Catholic, but the cop has long turned from the path of the righteous and now seeks only to get his fix by whatever means available to him. Now he wants the nun’s rapists to face true justice, but by the end the dirtiest of dirty cops will have his every notion of justice, faith, and redemption radically redefined. Plus, he’ll have a showdown with none other than Jesus Christ himself (Paul Hipp).
Bad Lieutenant is a police drama with absolutely no peer, much in the way Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller was not your typical western or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was hardly anyone’s idea of a science-fiction adventure. There are no exciting shootouts, high-speed car chases, or stereotypical crime movie characters like the police captain who always wants the hero’s badge or the hooker with a heart of gold. This is a movie that provides us with no escape, no solace from the overbearing darkness of its story. Abel Ferrera pretty much shot his action flick wad with King of New York, but Bad Lieutenant is first and foremost a character piece, except that in this case the character is more of a cipher. The Lieutenant himself isn’t even given a name or a past. We don’t know where he came from or how got to his current position on the police force and in life. The filmmakers never let on if the Lieutenant was once a good cop who simply took a road less traveled, or why he seems so isolated from his family and colleagues. The Lieutenant is all alone in this cold, cruel world and that’s just the way he likes it, thank you very fucking much.
But there is a part of him that yearns for some kind of emotional release, to have the kind of connection with other human beings he once took for granted. It’s established in the movie that the Lieutenant has a family he’s separated from (possibly through divorce, or maybe he had children with a woman but never married-the movie never makes that clear) and he interacts with his two sons in a single scene at the beginning of the film but other than a later scene at his wife’s house that’s about all we ever see of the character in a family mentality. The Lieutenant has no real family or friends. The only people he visits on a regular basis besides his kids are the junkies and prostitutes he exploits for sexual favors and heroin. Director Ferrera co-wrote Bad Lieutenant with Zoe Lund (formerly Tamerlis), who starred in Ferrera’s breakthrough film, the exploitation classic Ms. .45, and played the Lieutenant’s heroin dealer. Lund was in real life a junkie who died in 1999 of an overdose and the sight of her shooting up on-screen is a sobering one to behold given what happened to her later in life.
Harvey Keitel’s performance as the Lieutenant would be his last truly magnificent work as an actor. He earned a well-deserved iconic status for playing the ice-cool professional criminal Mr. White in Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut Reservoir Dogs but that movie came before Bad Lieutenant and it shows. In the Tarantino flick Keitel was playing a classic tough guy in the tradition of Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Lee Marvin. For Ferrera’s film Keitel invested his characterless character with a bruising, naked intensity that recalls the Method-acting style favored by actors since the emergence of Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift back in the 1950’s. This is Harvey Keitel at his volcanic best, a performance of implosive brilliance that reminds us all how truly great this actor was in the early years of his career when he was headlining such classics of the New Hollywood as Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, and James Toback’s Fingers. Keitel has always been one of my favorite actors, a rare performer who could command a screen with a snap of his fingers or a few simple but direct words. Recent years have seen him going for the kind of movies that offer a nice payday than an acting challenge, but Keitel is still alive and well so I sincerely hope one day he makes a return to the kind of performances that made his career and established him as one of the finest actors of his generation.
Bad Lieutenant also marked Abel Ferrera’s professional peak as a filmmaker. Ever since he made his directorial debut with the gritty 1970’s horror flick The Driller Killer Ferrera has flirted with mainstream respectability (from 1984’s Fear City to the aforementioned King of New York) but his heart belongs to the no-bullshit guerilla cinema that established him as one of the independent film world’s most uncompromising maverick filmmakers. His movies often categorization and the man himself has been known to be eccentric on occasion but that hasn’t prevented Ferrera from cultivating a unique catalogue of films and assembling a loyal crew of actors and technicians who respect the man’s vision and dedication to his art enough to follow him almost anywhere. Ferrera’s films tend to avoid the cool factor inherent in the flashier indies of the time in favor of a grittier, street-level style that often recalls a documentary. In his movies you feel like you’re there on location with him and his cast and crew and the cinematography and sound editing create atmospheres that get under your skin. Like his lead actor Keitel Ferrera hasn’t been able to make a movie on the level of Bad Lieutenant’s greatness in the years since, instead churning out several thematically fascinating but ultimately forgettable films like The Funeral and The Addiction. But there is time and Ferrera has it in him to make more movies as great as the ones that established him as a filmmaker to beat, and one day I hope he does. I should say no more about this movie.
For their recently released special edition DVD of Bad Lieutenant, no doubt timed to the release of the Nicolas Cage-starring sequel-in-name-only Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Lionsgate Home Entertainment has given the Ferrera film a decent digital spit-and-polish with solid audio and a slim but worthwhile selection of bonus features. The 1.78:1 widescreen picture, enhanced for 16×9 televisions, brings out the sights and texture of the movie’s New York City very well and the English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track captures the unique sonic fresco of the city splendidly. English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
The extra features include an audio commentary with director Ferrera and his director of photography Ken Kelsch. If you’ve heard Ferrera’s past DVD commentaries you’ll know he can make for a wildly entertaining if not always coherent narrator, but his running commentary with Kelsch admirably stays on topic for the majority of the time. It’s a solid track complimented well by the only other new bonus feature, a 3-part 34-minute retrospective documentary entitled “It All Happens Here: Abel Ferrera and the Making of Bad Lieutenant“.
The documentary consists of new interviews with Ferrera and several members of the crew and is loaded with good stories and interesting facts about the genesis of the film, the entrenched production, and its rapturous reception from critics when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Ferrera dominates the proceedings but there also good interviews with producer Randy Sabusawa, production designer Charles Lagola, and music composer Joe Delia. Sadly no members of the cast were present to offer up their recollections of making this indie classic with the exception of former NYPD homicide detective Bo Dietl who plays one of the Lieutenant’s colleagues and whose exploits provided part of the basis for the film’s story (he investigated the 1981 rape and murder of a nun, plus the 1998 crime drama One Tough Cop was based on his autobiography with Stephen Baldwin playing Dietl). There’s also a discussion about the fast life and tragic death of co-writer and co-writer Zoe Lund and a tribute to character actor Victor Argo, who played another of Keitel’s fellow cops and who died in 2004.
Bad Lieutenant is a cinematic masterpiece and a milestone in the careers of its director Abel Ferrera and star Harvey Keitel, but it’s not a film for all tastes. First-time viewers should be advised to approach with caution because you may go in expecting something like The French Connection or an episode of Law & Order (the packaging on Lionsgate’s new DVD makes the movie look like another Tarantino-esque hip action flick) but you will experience something else entirely different, and depending on your tastes you’ll either love it or hate it. I myself happen to love it, and I highly recommend it to all adventuresome film fans looking for a real movie.