CRIMEWATCH: Bad Lieutenant

From the opening moments of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) when New York Police Officer “L.T.” (Harvey Keitel) drives his bratty kids to school we can see he is a furious human being. As he watches the kids leave he sneaks a few snorts of coke just to wake him up. When he gets to his latest job in the city (the scene of a double murder) the dark mood it creates is soon turned to a conversation about baseball with his fellow officers (Victor Argo, Paul Calderon). The Mets and Dodgers World Series is a a big deal since they’ve been betting their money on the teams. This lighter subject matter also provides them with a way to cope with the ugliness they must see on a daily basis.

L.T.’s only true relief from his inner turmoil comes from hard drugs and alcohol. He gets his ‘pick me ups’ all over town, whether it’s a dealer that he pretends to arrest or one of his closest junkie pals (Ms 45’s Zoe Lund) who acts as a kind of psychologist/nurse while she shoots him up when he needs a stronger high. These rituals of buying/copping (or betting), seem to take the place of any religious ones. As L.T. explains to one of his fellow cops, he only sees church and faith as “just another racket”.

Bad LT. and nun

L.T. moves through his life like a mad as hell, drug sniffing elephant with a badge. When he does stop a robbery, he points his gun and takes the money from the thugs and puts it in his pocket. L.T. also owes a large outstanding debt to a loanshark from his betting on baseball and is in danger of being murdered, but he doesn’t care because he considers himself invincible. Unlike Keitel’s character Charlie and his protection of Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, L.T. has noone to look out for him and is all alone.

At one point, L.T. tries to come to terms with his weakness and failures as a person when a local nun is raped by a gang of men. He is truly broken down when she forgives them and does not seek vengeance, it is something L.T. cannot understand. He unleashes his pent up anger and pleads for help to a vision of Jesus standing in the church, but afterwards there is no heavenly resolution, no voice that tells him everything will be alright. L.T. merely stumbles back onto the streets to start picking up criminals and investigating murders again. It’s a pretty nihilistic portrayal of this man’s life, and it never stops, just goes around and around like a non stop carousel.

Harvey Keitel gives a truly remarkable performance as L.T.. He completely bares his soul and shows all the ugliness and weakness the character has and throws it right in our faces. It’s really a stunning piece of acting from the modern age. His Bad Lieutenant could easily be someone in a play by Shakespeare or a story from the Old Testament.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009, Dir: Werner Herzog)

As opposed to Abel Ferarra’s hard boiled, urban tale, this remake (or reboot) simply didn’t carry the same kind of emotional weight. Nicolas Cage plays the main character as a drugged out renegade cop but without the same level of intensity and desparity of Keitel, who really put it all out there. As much as I like Cage as an actor, this is really just another “wild man” role where he was able to act like a nut. Director Werner Herzog also tries to bring some kind of psychadelic hallucinatory elements into the story as Cage’s mind altered officer sees visions of different reptiles laying around which really comes off as cheap and unimportant. If you want to see a stunning crime film/character study, the original is highly recommended.



Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

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