But that’s the funny thing about movies—you grow into them. At 17, I wasn’t ready for the assault of Abel Ferrara’s relentlessly downbeat drama, nor did I appreciate its deliberate pace and the maturity of its storytelling. Now, nearly 17 years later, I can see it for what it is: a sweaty, uncompromising, brilliant piece of work.
Keitel stars as the title character (he’s never referred to by name), whom we first meet driving his kids to school in the morning, delivering a profanity-laden tirade to the agreeable boys about how to deal with a mouthy aunt. The kids are barely out of the car before he toots up; we then follow him as he steals from murder scenes, hangs out with prostitutes, digs himself into a deep hole of gambling debt, and does about every drug he can get his hands on.
These opening scenes are like a checklist of bad behavior, and the audience could be forgiven for presuming that the entire picture will be as bleak and black and white as its title. This lieutenant is, without question, a bad, bad man. But he’s offered an opportunity for redemption, of sorts: at the altar of a church in Spanish Harlem, a pretty young nun is savagely raped by a pair of neighborhood thugs. In a lesser movie, his ability to track down the rapists and avenge the crime would perhaps soften his petty crimes. Bad Lieutenant is a little more complicated than that.
Bronx-born director Ferrara (whose previous film was the slick cult hit King of New York) and director of photography Ken Kelsch observe their grimy New York City locations with the precision and detail of a good documentary, and the grubby aesthetic is just right; the handheld camerawork pulses without distracting, and some of the individual shots (like Keitel wandering through a poorly lit apartment building in a drug-induced haze, gun in hand) are downright harrowing. But it’s not a flashy picture, either; Ferrara is a mature director and frequently keeps his distance from the subjects, allowing scenes to play out in long takes with an observational (rather than active) point of view, to great effect. This approach leads to a stagnant scene here or there, but when it works (as in the remarkably restrained final shot), it works wonders. Ferrara only really steps wrong once: in the rape scene, where the over-the-top, melodramatic neon reads and shock photography betray his exploitation film roots.
All of that would be for naught, however, were it not for Keitel’s no-apologies, take-no-prisoners performance, which is surely the finest work he’s ever done in a film. It’s not a humorless performance (as he smokes angel dust in a project apartment building hallway, he yells down to an approaching tenant, “Get back! Police activity!”), but it is at times uncomfortably intense—he goes to some deep, dark places. As we watch him being shot full of heroin in a dank, ugly apartment (by the film’s co-writer, the late Zoe Lund), we’re not sure what he’s doing, but it’s not acting—it’s too painfully personal for that. And the scene that follows, where he first confronts the forgiving nun and then (indirectly) his own demons, is a stunning, balls-out display. It’s a dirty bomb of a performance.
Bad Lieutenant is not exactly fun to watch—it’s glum, relentless, sometimes cringe-worthy viewing, and some viewers just prefer sunny romances and fart-joke comedies. But those who can take a film this potent will find that Ferrara does his job with undeniable skill, and that Keitel’s performance is nothing short of extraordinary.
(Two sidebars: First, it should be noted that “Bad Lieutenant” was subjected to a notorious case of music replacement, due to its numerous uses of the Schooly D song “Signifying Rapper,” which used an unauthorized sample of the guitar riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” The song had to be removed and replaced by a Ferrara original composition for all releases subsequent to 1994, including this one. For what it’s worth, this viewer didn’t notice the loss—though, strangely, the song can still be heard in the included theatrical trailer. Second, the original LIVE release used this perfect tagline: “Gambler. Thief. Junkie. Killer. Cop.” Inexplicably, this release includes the same tag, but removes the word “junkie.” Is a junkie cop no longer shocking?)
"Bad Lieutenant"'s new Special Edition DVD (presumably being released now to tie in with the upcoming release of Werner Herzog’s bizarre-looking remake/reboot/sequel/who-knows-what, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans", starring Nicolas Cage), hits stores on Tuesday, July 28th.