Director Abel Ferrara and actor Harvey Keitel give the best performances of either of their careers in this shocking piece of pulp.
Abel Ferrara is somehow able to shape a plot riddled with super sleazy elements into an acceptable drama.
In another director’s hands Bad Lieutenant would have turned into exploitation or even pornography. Perhaps it is Ferrara’s experience with the sleazy sub-genres of horror and rape-revenge films such The Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1981) that allows him to navigate such treacherous water. Ferrara’s style would mature after these early exploitation entries with The King of New York (1990) and with Bad Lieutenant itself. Ferrara is a native New Yorker and distills all of the grindhouse fare of his early films into a product, which could hail from no other city.
Bad Lieutenant deals with lurid subject matter in a matter of fact style. Instead of exploiting the sexy and violent themes the film simply portrays them. Predating the pseudo-documentary style of many dramas Bad Lieutenant does an amazing job of providing an audience with a window into an unseen, underground New York City.
Harvey Keitel successfully portrays the most evil man imaginable, yet somehow human and relatable. Only Keitel could make a character as villainous as the Bad Lieutenant a somewhat likeable antihero. Much like Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver Keitel provides a character that is an extreme outsider but also has redemptive qualities. Critic Roger Ebert went so far as to say “in the Bad Lieutenant, Keitel has given us one of the great screen performances in recent years.” Anyone who views his performance will undoubtedly agree.
Bad Lieutenant opens harmlessly enough with the Lieutenant dropping off his two children to Catholic school. Before long, however, he is snorting cocaine, ignoring crimes and busting drug deals only to take the drugs himself or selling them for his own profit. The contrast of Catholicism with crime is the centerpiece of Bad Lieutenant along with Keitel and New York City itself. Rape of a nun is the most explicit depiction of violence and Catholicism. Following the rape case the Lieutenant’s behavior becomes increasing erratic with escalating drug use and dangerous sexuality dominating the screen. A bet concerning the Mets and the Dodgers in the World Series ties the film together as the Lieutenant’s bets on the Mets bring him into hot water. Thematically as New York City battles itself so do its baseball teams as well as the Bad Lieutenant.
Less of a plot driven piece than a character study Bad Lieutenant is satisfying for viewers, exploring the extraordinary darkness in Man’s soul as well as his contradictory views on morality and religion. On the other hand, the film is as satisfying as a car crash one slows down to see on the side of the road. This combination of serious drama and pure voyeurism make Bad Lieutenant completely unique.
Director: Abel Ferrara
Writers: Abel Ferrara, Victor Argo
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Victor Argo and Paul Calderon
Release Date: 19 February 1993 (UK)