While I’ve enjoyed several of Abel Ferrara’s films, 1992’s Bad Lieutenant unfortunately left me feeling nothing but wronged and dirty, and not in the good way. “Gambler, Thief, Killer, Cop” is the film’s mantra, and Harvey Keitel’s character is all of these and more.
The film starts out with strong visuals of sex and drug use (it is rated NC-17,) but as the movie progresses and Keitel’s character spirals into destruction, so does the movie. Films that fall under the category of “disturbing” typically leave audiences with a new or altered perception of society, but I felt many scenes in this film did nothing but add unnecessary raunchiness and repulsion.
It’s one thing to portray sex, rape, drug addiction and corruptness within the murky backstreets of New York, but when they do nothing to support a character’s downfall or redemption, they ultimately serve no purpose. After the first quarter of the movie, I ultimately forgot that Keitel’s character was even a cop; he simply seemed like a perverted coke addict with a gambling problem. And even after all of the ridiculous religious imagery, I felt not sympathy, but ambiguity towards his character. Plus, it doesn’t help when audiences can predict the end of a movie forty minutes before its conclusion.
Overall, I think the film may have worked if Keitel wasn’t cast as the main character. While the role was superbly acted, I suppose I’ve seen too many Keitel films that trumped this one big time, or at least left out a ten-second visual of the actor’s penis. The special edition DVD does contain worthwhile commentary from the director, along with a documentary special feature that fills you in on tidbits of information you probably wouldn’t find anywhere else (such as Christopher Walken being initially offered the lead role as LT.)