Movies & Videos
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

    Related Item
‘Bad Lieutenant’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 29, 1993


Abel Ferrara
Harvey Keitel;
Victor Argo;
Paul Calderon
No one under 17 admitted

Marketplace Online Shopping

Compare prices
for this movie

Find local video stores
WP yellowpages
More movie shopping

Save money with NextCard Visa

There's one thing to admire in "Bad Lieutenant": Harvey Keitel's courage. Playing a cop about a notch nicer than Satan, he is required to cavort naked, masturbate in front of two women drivers, do all the cocaine, heroin, gambling and drinking he can manage -- and still drop the kids off at school on time.

Would the easily offended please re-read the opening paragraph? We're talking nudity, cruelty, drugs, sex, profane language, not to mention the rape of a nun in this NC-17-rated movie. And those are just the dull parts.

This hard-core, updated Canterbury Tale about a scuzzball New York detective is directed by Abel Ferrara, who has made a brutal, cultish name for himself with films such as "Driller Killer," "Ms. 45," "China Girl" and "King of New York." For most of "Bad Lieutenant," there is nothing that is pleasant or uplifting -- not even a kind gesture. The world is a stinking, cynical pit of corruption. Keitel's mega-sinful qualities are symptomatic of the world he lives in.

Everyone seems to do drugs. No one cares. The system lets young hoodlums walk. Keitel's gambling compulsion -- through mafioso bookies -- is shared by his fellow cops. He may be a loose cannon. But in Ferrara's eyes (he scripted this with Zoe Lund, who plays Keitel's mistress), he's just one of many.

Ferrara's deadly serious statements about society are dramatically undermined by Keitel's schematic characterization. Keitel is so, well, bad, he turns into a coke-snorting, prince-of-darkness abstraction. It doesn't take five minutes for us to understand the depth of his immorality. But the movie proceeds to outline his badness.

Scene after scene shows how badly he treats his family, those women drivers ("bad girls," he says hypocritically, after pulling them over for a broken taillight) or anyone he comes into contact with. He busts store robbers, then pockets their loot. He sells confiscated coke to drug dealers. He shoots up with Lund. But there's no growth, just further descent. Despite a glut of luridness, the story line feels essentially flat, as Keitel stumbles through New York in an immoral, unchanging haze. It is only the strength of Keitel's performance that gives his personality human dimension.

The rape and torture of a nun (Frankie Thorn) in Spanish Harlem push Keitel toward that needed change. Although he sees worse cruelties daily on the job, he becomes intrigued. He doesn't understand how this woman (an unusually attractive, bionic, Spa-body-for-the-'90s kinda nun) could forgive her assailants. It bugs him into eventual moral action. But, to its credit, "Bad Lieutenant" avoids the "Taxi Driver," blow-the-scum-away ending. Instead, it takes some unusual, surreal twists and turns. Such a conclusion may be the moral solace most would hope for, but it probably comes far too late.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar