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‘Bad Lieutenant’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 29, 1993


Abel Ferrara
Harvey Keitel;
Victor Argo;
Paul Calderon
, well, you name it

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"Bad Lieutenant," the dark, acid urban drama starring Harvey Keitel, isn't just another story about a cop gone wrong. Those are a dime a dozen. This punishing film from director Abel Ferrara is something else altogether -- an illuminating, excoriating descent into the cesspool of sin, self-loathing and defilement. This is not an easy film to watch.

Why would we sign up for such an unpleasant journey? And what compels us to watch a figure so seemingly without redeeming value? Because somehow, though this film's lead character is repulsive and his actions dastardly, it is possible to learn from this grim parable something about our own cruelties and weaknesses.

The Keitel character is given no name except The Lieutenant, and that's entirely appropriate. He doesn't deserve a name. The Lieutenant is pure appetite, pure libido, with only vestigial traces of his humanity intact.

To say that substance abuse plays a part in this journey into debauchery is a grotesque understatement. During the course of the film, The Lieutenant abuses substances that I didn't know could be abused. (And in some cases, I couldn't even identify the substances.) Like a modern-day Caligula, his excesses are epic: Sex, booze, crack, coke, heroin are indulged in such gargantuan proportions that it's a miracle he remains upright. When a gambling habit that eventually leaves him in hock to the tune of 120 grand is added to the mix, full systemic meltdown becomes a question of when, not if.

This suicidal betting, which centers on a seven-game playoff series between the Mets and the Dodgers, drives the film's narrative. With each day's losses, The Lieutenant plummets deeper into debt, raising the stakes for himself -- and for the audience -- until we feel trapped with him in a torture chamber with the walls slowly closing in.

In his past films (most notably "Ms. 45" and "King of New York"), Ferrara has straddled the fine line separating art and exploitation, usually landing on the side of the latter. And for about the first half of "Bad Lieutenant" -- which is, not surprisingly, rated NC-17 -- we're not sure where this one will come to rest either.

When The Lieutenant pulls over a pair of young teenage girls who've taken out Daddy's car without permission and negotiates a sleazy exchange of sexual favors for his silence, we may want to dismiss the picture entirely as a disgusting exercise in sewer diving. Certainly, we might think, this is not entertainment.

But The Lieutenant's atrocities -- committed against both himself and others -- accumulate a critical mass that reaches far beyond the laws of man to become sins against God. And, ultimately, it's God's attention he's trying to get. This religious dimension is introduced when The Lieutenant begins an investigation into the rape of a nun in a Spanish Harlem church by two crackheads who, after brutalizing the woman, desecrate her church.

Ferrara is clearly drawing an equation between the criminals' actions and The Lieutenant's, and as trite (and potentially shameless) as this may sound, it actually works. The Lieutenant, who calls himself a Catholic and then, several scenes later, snorts coke off a picture of his child at communion, is raging against God and, at the same time, administering to himself a cruel punishment for his own transgressions. In this sense, The Lieutenant is like a rogue, self-flagellating saint drawing himself closer to God through willful defiance -- a tormented, bedeviled man engaged in unholy communion.

This bizarre ecclesiastical dimension is what makes "Bad Lieutenant" more than a shallow wallow in the muck. Ferrara does make his moral points, and though one feels dirtied in the process, there is an accompanying feeling of purification as well. Ferrara and Keitel -- who by virtue of his work in "Mean Streets," "Fingers," "Taxi Driver," "Bugsy" and, most recently, "Reservoir Dogs" may be the only actor in America to have earned the right to play this lost soul -- take The Lieutenant to the absolute limits of self-inflicted human pain. They blot out every trace of decency and goodness, yet the possibility of redemption is not entirely foreclosed. In the shadow of this suffocating darkness, this slender hope provides the only ray of sunlight.

"Bad Lieutenant" is rated NC-17 for, well, you name it.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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