Bad Lieutenant Movie Review
Such are the totems of the godless world of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, a season in hell that doubles as a vehicle for Harvey Keitel's blistering tour-de-force as the nameless officer that gives the film its name. Full to bursting with unadulterated drug use, violent sex, and moral decay, it also serves as Ferrara's most unfettered and primal ode to a one-time soulless New York that now looks more like a planet of condos.
Made in 1992, the film centers on the investigation into the raped nun (Frankie Thorn), but it's fueled by the Lieutenant's hunger for coke, booze, women, and money at every turn. In one of his most startling acts, he demands a pair of teenagers to bare their asses and act like they are performing oral sex while he masturbates outside their car. He also makes time to shoot-up with a shut-in junkie, played by Zoë Lund, who co-wrote the script with Ferrara and cop-turned-actor Victor Argo.
Communicating his anguish through bouts of uncontrolled crying and guttural moans, and plagued by the image of a beefcake Jesus, the Lieutenant wanders the city for a score and, ultimately, redemption. A scene where he scores a rock from a clubber was shot in Limelife, a church converted into an orgy of S+M imagery and swirling neon lights. Nearing a meltdown, the Lieutenant must endure the Mets' miraculous upset at every turn, as it seems to be on every television and radio in New York.
Keitel's performance is perhaps the needed counterpoint to Christopher Walken's ice-cold overlord in Ferrara's visionary crime opus King of New York. Where King offered the resurrection as a stylized elimination of rival gangs and enemies in the NYPD (and a feral take on American imperialism), Lieutenant is a lean, throttling attempt at redemption in the eyes of an uncaring world. Physically imposing, Keitel is the fire in the film's belly, tumbling and slouching through dark hallways and red-light districts and, every once in awhile, flashing an infamous full-frontal for all to see.
The possibility of redemption lurks around every corner, whether it's the comeback of the Mets or the Lieutenant's daughter taking her first communion. Even the box of money he collects from a poor immigrant family, which he guards as if it were a fresh stash, has a cross on it. In Ferrara's New York, corruption is the given and forgiveness is an act of immense faith. Enraged and frustrated, the Lieutenant screams a sobbing confession to the imaginary Christ after the nun tells him that she seeks no revenge against the two crackheads who raped her. Salvation don't come easy in Bad Lieutenant and whether the Lieutenant is, as the song that closes the film suggests, pledging his love in his final act of forgiveness is a question of faith.