As much of a film geek as I am, I have to admit to never having seen an Abel Ferrara movie until last week when I finally saw Bad Lieutenant (1992). From a story perspective it’s pretty much what I expected. Harvey Keitel plays a really bad NYC cop. He’s doing drugs, he’s gambling, he’s doing some more drugs and then he’s gambling some more. It’s an ugly downward spiral. Throw in the rape of a nun and you’ve got a couple hours of pure grit.
I can see why this film was so captivating at the time of its release. In some respects it’s a real throwback in style and feel to the great cop films of the 70s, a genre and style that had fallen out of favor by the mid-80s. By then, the grain and the grime of 70s NYC had given way to a landscape of pastels and lush, Blue Velvety-esque colorscapes. Bad Lieutenant signals a return to a beloved era in American filmmaking. But more than just a return to the 70s, Bad Lieutenant ups the grime factor significantly by presenting a lead character on a jag of depravity far more severe than seen in the anti-heroes of the 70s. In Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino is desperate but we feel his pain and he’s loveable in a way that’s easy to love a fuck up. In The French Connection, Gene Hackman oversteps his bounds, but he has a moral compass motivating his actions. Keitel’s character in Bad Lieutenant is an anti-hero, but with little-to-no hero in him. It’s like taking a 70s movie and wringing it completely dry of its morality. Keitel is simply not likeable. He’s an out and out heel. And the movie is downright unapologetic about this.
Was it good? Tough to say? When a film is so hyped and it takes you 20 years to see it, it’s hard to live up to expectations. Interestingly, while I was watching the film, there was a minor hoodlum scuffle taking place outside my window which necessitated a call to 911. I didn’t turn the volume down on the movie while talking to the cops, and I must say it was making me nervous. The cop is asking me questions while Keitel is shaking down street thugs in a fairly hostile way. I was afraid the cop was going to ask me what the hell was going on in my house. And for some reason, I figure cops don’t like this movie none too much.