When Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant was released 17 years ago and slapped with the scarlet “A” of an NC-17 rating, the film’s shock value overwhelmed any discussion of its aesthetic value. Given the extreme badness of Harvey Keitel’s out-of-control detective—and Ferrara’s eagerness to live up to his billing as the scuzzy Martin Scorsese—that’s somewhat understandable. Between a drunken three-way, a nun getting gang-raped (intercut with Jesus screaming from the cross), a virtual tutorial in how to take heroin, a notorious scene where Keitel harasses a couple of underage girls, and random incidents of gambling, thieving, and drug use, it can be hard to look at Bad Lieutenant as anything but provocation for its own sake. But Ferrara’s tale of sin and redemption has a raw, unvarnished power that’s embodied by Keitel’s performance, and the years have preserved it as an equally potent street-level look at a city.
It’s a massive understatement to say that Keitel begins the film as a “lapsed Catholic,” given his predilection for booze, girls, pilfered drugs, and gambling beyond his means on the Darryl Strawberry-era Mets. But a Catholic he remains, so when a group of neighborhood thugs rape a nun in a Lower East Side church, the incident captures his attention. Keitel intends to go after the perpetrators with fists flying and guns blazing, but when the nun actually forgives her attackers, the gesture sends him reeling into a serious crisis of faith. Her simple act of grace throws the depravity of his world into sharp relief, leaving him to come crawling back to the church and contend for his eternal soul.
Though Ferrara has a well-earned reputation as New York’s chief provocateur, his secret weapon is a style that’s surprisingly austere and darkly funny, with a lot of long takes that play out from a set distance. Had Ferrara attempted to complement the behavior onscreen with self-consciously “edgy” technique, Bad Lieutenant would have been distractingly over-the-top, but instead it’s a more studied, serious film than its reputation might suggest. Ferrara’s unblinking camera sets the stage for Keitel, whose agonizing transformation from a reckless sinner to a wretch grasping for redemption leaves him exposed in more ways than one.
Key features: The forthcoming Werner Herzog-Nicolas Cage remake Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans explains this DVD reissue, but in truth, it’s been a long time coming. The new disc cleans up the original bargain-basement, non-anamorphic release, and better yet, adds a commentary with the loveably cantankerous Ferrara and cinematographer Ken Kelsch. It also includes a 13-minute making-of documentary that details the real-life tabloid case which loosely inspired the film.