Bad Lieutenant (United States, 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Harvey Keitel plays an unnamed New York City lieutenant who's a lot worse than the criminals who infest his streets. A womanizer, drug abuser, alcoholic, and gambler, the bad (and unnamed) lieutenant epitomizes corruption and decadence. When his chance at redemption comes as the result of the brutal rape of a nun, is there anything left within him to redeem?

If a movie could survive on the force of a single performance, Bad Lieutenant would be it. Keitel throws himself into his role with undisputed gusto. He is never upstaged; in fact, most of the time when he's on-screen, whoever happens to be sharing the scene is virtually invisible. Keitel holds nothing back, and his performance serves to hide some, but not all, of Bad Lieutenant's numerous flaws.

While the first two-thirds of the movie work sporadically as a lurid character study of the lieutenant, they are incomplete. One of the most obvious unanswered is how he got where he is -- what events ignited his moral disintegration, or has he always been like that? Not only does the film make no attempt to probe that issue, it's not concerned about it. Even though the lieutenant appears to have hit bottom by the time the movie opens, he still manages to find new depths to sink to. Unfortunately, Bad Lieutenant collapses during the final half-hour. Attempts to redeem the title character send the film careening off course until the chillingly realistic final scene snaps everything back into focus. During this extended denouement, there's a lot of wierd religious symbology and an unnecessarily graphic rape scene.

At least the mood isn't unremittingly bleak. There are numerous instances of black humor, some of which are probably unintentional. The extreme excesses of the bad lieutenant are at times comical, but it's unclear whether director Abel Ferrara wanted us to laugh on these occasions. Nevertheless, aside from Keitel's often over-the-top and always brilliant performance, there's little of value in Bad Lieutenant. As good as the lead actor is, he's not enough to save this picture from landing on the scrap-heap of uninspired, derivative, and grotesquely distasteful character studies. Ferrara is definitely no Martin Scorsese.

Bad Lieutenant (United States, 1992)

Director: Abel Ferrara
Cast: Harvey Keitel
Screenplay: Abel Ferrara and Zoe Lund
Music: Joe Delia
U.S. Distributor: Aries Films
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 1993-01-15
MPAA Rating: "NC-17" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1