Bad Lieutenant Reviews
Trafficking in minimalism, this is a raw, visceral, grim, and gritty character about a tortured police lieutenant who is basically the most corrupt and vile cop ever. He spends most of his time abusing his body with sex, drugs, and booze, abusing his power as a cop, and racking up a sizable gambling debt. He's a slimy, unlikable worm, but all of that changes when he investigates the brutal rape of a nun. Amazed that she can forgive her attackers, he decides that maybe he too can be redeemed.
There's really not much of a plot. It's pretty much just scene after scene of debauchry and filth, with heavy amounts of Catholic themes and imagery thrown in with all the awfulness. I do appreciate and admire the film's look at sinfulness and faith, but it all feels rather pointless.
Keitel is pretty great though as the titular character. It's a career defining (and very brave) turn, but I think he may have gone a little too off the rails at times, with some of his wailing coming off as laughable as opposed to genuine and moving.
The film is at least well shot, atmospheric, and moody. It's just also really really unpleasant, joyless, and tough to endure.
As I said, I admire it, but I don't know if I really like it. It's overrated, but in a way, I kind of appreciate the trashiness, if only for the fact that there is a place for it in this messed up world of ours.
"Gambler. Thief. Junkie. Killer. Cop."
Before finally seeing Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, I knew what to expect. I've seeing the semi-remake from Werner Herzog, which I liked. The subject matter isn't what you'd call cheery. Bad Lieutenant's title is pretty self explanatory. It is about a cop, and a not so good one at that. That doesn't mean he isn't good at his job. It means he is a bad person. He gets himself in deep by gambling. He does a variety of drugs. He drinks. He uses teenage girls for sex. If there's a terrible thing you can think of; odds are The Lieutenant does it. There's really not much plot here. It's all about the man. So based purely on that short synopsis, you should be able to decide whether it is a movie that you could handle.
Although this is rated NC-17, it isn't as graphic as you would think. Today, this would get an R rating. Not that the rating has any basis in what I think of the film, I just thought I would get that out of the way. I was actually surprised by how un-graphic the film was. Sure there's a lot of cussing, and a lot of drug use; but today that is common, so it doesn't really shock. The sexual content is mostly implied, unlike Herzog's film.
This whole film relies on Harvey Keitel's performance as The Lieutenant, and he does a really good job as usual. The scenes where he breaks down are his best. He is powerful in them. Other than that though, there is really nothing noteworthy about Bad Lieutenant. Ferrara's direction is nothing to write home about. There is some good camera work, but that doesn't really elevate the film in my eyes.
I'll give this a mild recommendation purely because of Keitel's powerhouse performance. I didn't really like the movie though. It may suffer in my eyes more than someone who hasn't seen Herzog's film, though. I thought his was amazing; so by comparison, this one just underwhelms me in about every possible way. The only thing better about it, is the lead performance. Keitel is going to out perform Cage obviously. Overall, it isn't a terrible movie. We see what Ferrara's point is with this character study through Keitel's performance. I just wish it would have had something else going for it.
Bad Lieutenant is a slow-burning, often thoughtful character study scripted by Zoe Lund, a model-turned-actress who starred in Ms. 45. It follows the tortured lifestyle of an unnamed New York police lieutenant who is deeply in debt to the mob through bets made on a baseball series. On top of his gambling addiction he is also a cocaine and heroin addict, who steals drugs from crime scenes to sell on the street so he can fund his other habit, namely women. In the midst of all this, somehow being able to keep his job, he is assigned to track down two men who have brutally raped a young nun, played by Frankie Thorn.
For this kind of character to be believable, you need an actor with weight, experience and a threatening screen presence - and no-one meets those criteria better than Harvey Keitel. After a relatively quiet 1980s, Keitel was experiencing a revival with critical plaudits for his work on Thelma and Louise and Bugsy, the latter of which brought him his first (and so far only) Oscar nomination. Around the same time he played Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs, a role popularly perceived as his comeback. But out of the two this is the more remarkable performance, which makes any talk of a 'comeback' seem like damning with faint praise.
Keitel's performance in Bad Lieutenant is one of the best of his career, up there with his early work on Mean Streets or The Duellists. He truly and painfully inhabits the nameless Lieutenant, giving a performance of such raw, unmitigated honesty that we empathise with him even in his most unspeakable moments. We genuinely feel the torture of the lieutenant as he descends further and further into hell on the streets of New York, faced with both his growing personal problems and a case which is impossible to solve. It's a performance of blood, sweat, tears and God knows what else, and the result is both frightening and heartbreaking.
In terms of Keitel's back catalogue, the film to which Bad Lieutenant is closest is Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese has almost admitted this comparison, including Bad Lieutenant on his list of Greatest Films of the 1990s. Both Travis Bickle and the Bad Lieutenant are driven, obsessive loners, who inhabit a world which is drowning in corruption and sin, and whose motivation comes from a desire to fight against the all-engulfing tide. But where Travis is positioned as God's lonely man, the Lieutenant has one foot firmly in hell and only gains complete moral conviction in the final stages of the film.
Bad Lieutenant is at heart a story of Catholic redemption. Keitel is haunted by the mistakes he has made in the past, and his regrets are tempered by an admittance that it is all his fault. His bets with the mob's bookie become increasingly absurd, so that during the scene in the club the broker advises Keitel that it would be cheaper and easier just to have him killed. The Lieutenant's many years on the streets have made him incapable of forgiving people or understand the grace or mercy of God. When his nieces receive their first communion, he watches from a distance, unable to connect with either the service or the beliefs it upholds.
There are a number of deeply striking sequences in Bad Lieutenant which convey the seemingly impossible prospect of redemption in the midst of all the horror unfolding on screen. The best and most extraordinary of these comes in the church, where Keitel questions the nun over her refusal to identify the men who raped her. She refuses to identify her attackers on the grounds that her rape raises the prospect of God's grace being bestowed on the two men. After she leaves, Keitel breaks down and see a vision of Christ standing in the church. He crawls along the floor, weeping and wailing, wanting to grasp the mysteries of God and forgiveness but being unable to reconcile that with his own shallow nature. It's an extraordinary scene in which the temporal and spiritual collide in a moment of pure passion and emotion, leaving the character devastated and the audience astonished.
After coming out of his vision, Keitel manages to track down the two men who raped the nun, but rather than turning them in, he gives them all the money he has and puts them on the first bus out of town. He does so against his better judgement, but even while he berates himself as the bus drives away, he knows in his heart that it was the right thing to do. In these scenes the Lieutenant realises in practice the true grace and compassion of Christ, with his decision mirroring that of the nun; like Thomas in the Gospels, he believes because he has seen. The film ends with the Lieutenant being murdered in his car: what seems like a cruel accident could equally be a blessed release, with the Lieutenant finally reaching heaven having performed God's works here on Earth.
Because Abel Ferrara started out as a grindhouse director, the spiritual aspects of Bad Lieutenant are not handled in a sugar-coated, airy-fairy way. Instead they come as ecstatic interludes to really brutal scenes involving nudity, violence and copious amounts of swearing, which earned the film an 18 certificate in the UK and a rare NC-17 in the States.
The film contains several very realistic depictions of drug-taking. Ferrara shoots long, uninterrupted takes in which Keitel meets with his stick-thin dealer, and warms heroin on a spoon with a lighter before injecting it into his arm. In one of the very first scenes, Keitel uses a coke spoon immediately after dropping his young nephews off to school. These scenes are shot in such clinical detail as to make drug-taking about as unglamorous as you can get: as in Requiem for a Dream, the high of taking the drug is cancelled out or overridden by the immediately painful consequences.
This discipline on Ferrara's part is equally present in the rape scene. Having previously made Ms. 45, Ferrara was well aware of the way such scenes would be structured in a duplicitous way: we almost tolerate the horrible violence because we are on the moral side of the victim and are goading her on to take revenge. But Bad Lieutenant doesn't fall into the kind of hideous duplicity present in I Spit On Your Grave. The rape scene focusses on the emotion of the nun and is intentionally repulsive. To reinforce the Christian element of the story, it is intercut with Christ on the cross, screaming as the nun screams. It's a shocking and original way of conveying the idea of Christ feeling every single pain and sin of mankind as He hung there on Good Friday.
Most controversial of all is a scene halfway through Bad Lieutenant, in which Keitel pulls over two girls, to find that they are stoned and driving without a license. Rather than turn them in, he asks one of them to strip and the other to mimic oral sex while he masturbates outside the car. James Ferman, then-Head Censor of the BBFC, was asked on several occasions why he didn't cut that scene; he responded that it was so repulsive that no sane person could possibly find it arousing. The scene is repulsive and goes on a little too long, but it does at least reinforce the distance and desperation of the Lieutenant, and arguably a graphic sex scene with girls half his age would be the greater of two evils.
There are flaws with Bad Lieutenant which prevent it from being a masterpiece. Even as we invest so deeply in Keitel's performance, we can't help wondering why he has been able to stay on the force all this time. He makes next to no effort to cover up his behaviour, and it seems a little far-fetched that even his seasoned colleagues would turn such a blind eye. As the character study deepens, the crime plot becomes almost totally peripheral, and in its weaker moments it can feel like Ferrara is testing our mettle for its own sake, seeing how much nastiness we can take before bringing back the plot to give us relief.
In the end, however, Bad Lieutenant rises above these flaws as a triumphant example of how exploitation cinema can explore serious ideas, in ways which are often more insightful and frequently more provocative than its mainstream equivalents. Keitel is outstanding in the title role, and Ferrara's direction is both merciless and mesmerising. It's a very tough watch for those not familiar with Ferrara or the traditions he has espoused throughout this career. But for those who can go the distance, it is a deeply moving piece of work.
So, while it's Harvey Kietel who really (and rightly) brings things together in 'Bad Lieutenant' and makes it the affecting near-masterpiece that it is, it would be unfair of me to completely overlook Ferrara's role in this equation. He's provided the context against which our centrepiece man must function - a world so run-down, sombre and nihilistic that trying to find redemption round here seems not only impossible, but practically pointless. The mood is well-set by the ever-overcast skies; killing, rape and robbery are rampant, and the Lt isn't exactly given a great deal to aspire to in his day-to-day life. Kietel and his character are admittedly the only things here that come off as particularly outstanding - the vast majority of supporting characters are really all just part of this one big daunting backdrop, with dialogue, screen time and development kept to a strict minimum in each case - though personally I look at this as being more of an additional strength than as a weakness. That everyone else around him always seems so distant only increases the overall feelings of detachment and isolation that draw us deeper into the Lt's outlook.
Christian faith and symbolism are pretty integral to the overall themes of this movie, but even being non-religious myself I find I can still get a good deal of emotional investment in it. It delivers its underlying issues - of non-judgement and the potential for goodness in even the most repellent of sinners - with acute precision, as reflected in the investigation concerning the raping of a young nun which the plot loosely revolves around. While this heinous crime only serves to strengthen the Lt's belief in the general depravity of the world around him, the nun herself has found solace in her refusal to condemn those who wronged her, viewing them instead as victims as their own confusion and despair. There are of course some fairly sharp parallels between this scenario and the Lt's own personal predicament, which any viewer who's really come to feel for him will recognise - as displeasing as some of the things he himself gets up to may be (and the way he incorporates further crime into his efforts to uphold the law), there's that challenge lying at the centre of every scene as to whether or not we're really in any position to pass judgement upon him. All things considered, is it truly a bad lieutenant that he is at heart or just, well, a sad one?
I don't imagine that everyone will quite take to the conclusion this eventually leads to (and which I'm not going to give away here), but considering just how weighty a lot of the issues it addresses really are, you never get the impression that Ferrara ever intended to come up with a cut-and-dried solution of any sorts. Instead, he and Kietel have put together a polished and powerful piece of film-making that, though it deals with some pretty disagreeable and, at the time at least, controversial subject matter, is so rich in great acting (well, one great performance, but it's easily worth the input of an entire cast) and slick atmospherics that it becomes entirely captivating. In the end, it's the surprising amount of depth and emotional muscle that it carries, and not the notorious reputation that it garnered, that 'Bad Lieutenant' really deserves to be remembered for - and remembered I hope it always will be. Another great in early 90s cinema.
The main attraction of this film is Keitel's strong, engaging, and at times gut-wrenching performance. Although his moaning occasionally seems so personal as to become uncomfortable to watch (in a bad way), it cannot be denied that Bad Lieutenant features a great actor at the top of his form. But the weakness of the film is the fact that we never get to understand why he's so poisoned in the soul. The film makes it clear that we're not supposed to pay attention to the mystery but to the character, however it relies on the horribleness of the crime he investigates to be the only motivator for the way he is. I admit that I sound like a pretentious ass in a creative writing workshop, but it's nonetheless true that the character's starting place seems un- or under-motivated.
As a baseball fan, not a movie fan, I have to level one other serious criticism: the Mets/Dodgers series that serves as the film's backdrop is entirely fictional. The NLCS was between the Braves and Pirates in 1991, which is the only year that Cone and Strawberry were on the Mets and Dodgers respectively. This shouldn't bother me as much as it does.
Bad Lieutenant isn't about a "cop on the edge". It's about a cop that jumped off the edge feet first into whatever private hell he had created for himself. The film stars Harvey Keitel as the bad lieutenant, an investigator with the NYPD whose job isn't even second in his life. First is betting (badly) on baseball. Second is getting high. Third is getting off. Throughout the film crime is something he is more apt to be committing than fighting. Even though the lieutenant is working a case involving a nun who is literally raped on the alter of her church it all is secondary in the story of a man who has hit total rock bottom.
Harvey Keitel delivers one of the greatest performances of his career in this film. Bar none and you have to remember that this guy's worked with Scorsese. He pours his soul into a character that is at one minute pathetic, generating apathy from the audience, to heinous. Keitel fears nothing in performing in this film. His drunken and drug induced binges that cause him to forget about "to serve and protect" show a man that is broken. He's done. There are no scruples for the lieutenant. One particularly disturbing scene involves the main character asking a pair of young girls out for a joy ride to show him how they would perform fellatio or he'll call their dad. The lieutenant then proceeds to fiddle with himself as they mimic as ordered. Rock bottom.
This is a film that goes beyond the idea of gritty. A dark tale from all angles. Bad Lieutenant is basically a redemption tale with our main character trying to claw his way to civilization again from the deepest, darkest hole imagined. It's a film that pulls no punches and is really a disturbing look at how life can turn out for you. A pure morality tale that doesn't feel preachy, yet gets it's point across beautifully.
The Lieutenant: What the fuck are you? A drug counselor... or a drug dealer? If you don't deal your own product, what kind of businessman are you?
A slow boiling crime drama about a corrupt New York police detective dealing with a drug problem, a gambling problem, and a rape case that may bring to light his own inner demons. Its a tough watch, but Harvey Keitel is absolutely terrific in the role.
Keitel stars as "The Lieutenant," a real bad man. He does just about every drug, abuses his privileges as a police officer, is depending on a certain logic involving the baseball finals for his gambling habits, and has just got himself a new case.
Beat Cop: I told you once before that this guy will come by your house and blow up your house up with your wife and kids and everybody in it. You know that, right?
The Lieutenant: Good, good. I'll give him an extra ten grand for his trouble. I hate that fucking house.
The case in question involves the violent rape of a nun, which brings the Lieutenant's rejection of his Catholic upbringing to light. This begins a rapid spiral downward, with the Lieutenant indulging in more and more sins against himself, as he deals with the problems of his life.
This film has really brought to light how much I like Harvey Keitel as an actor. He is completely absorbed into this role. This is a dark dark character who has pushed himself into an abyss of drugs, sex, and violence, where he only survives by continuing his process. As the film progresses Keitel somehow manages to show what happens when he attempts to exit the abyss. There is a scene, an extended monologue of sorts, involving his collapse and hallucination in a church, which must last for nearly ten minutes, and it is completely raw and scary good.
As a whole, I appreciated what was happening in this film. It was made in 1993, but it seems like it has come right out of the 70s, from the way the grittiness of the direction is handled. I can't imagine what a more polished version of this film would be like, however, inexplicably, a remake with Nic Cage and director Werner Herzog is on the way, so I guess I'll know then.
A very good performance goes a long way for this rough film.
The Nun: [about her attackers] I have forgiven them.
The Lieutenant: But do you have the right? You're not the only woman in the world. You're not even the only nun. Your forgiveness will leave blood in its wake. What if these guys do something like this again? To other women, other virgins? Old women who die from the shock? Do you have the right to forgive them? Can you bear the burden, sister?