I was working part-time as a video store clerk (for the first of many times) when Bad Lieutenant was released by LIVE Home Video in 1993, and because of that fact, it has always been, in my mind, inexorably linked to Reservoir Dogs. That one was a LIVE release as well, you see, so the two films' trailers played back-to-back on the same in-store preview tape, and the VHS copies of Reservoir Dogs (which I rented several times) included a trailer for Harvey Keitel's other new, low-budget indie. When I finally saw Bad Lieutenant, it was a disappointment; I was expecting the verbal and visual pyrotechnics of the Tarantino picture, not a stark, grim character study of a thoroughly repellant human being.
But that's the funny thing about movies--you grow into them. At 17, I wasn't ready for the assault of Abel Ferrara's relentlessly downbeat drama, nor did I appreciate its deliberate pace and the maturity of its storytelling. Now, nearly 17 years later, I can see it for what it is: a sweaty, uncompromising, brilliant piece of work.
Keitel stars as the title character (he's never referred to by name), whom we first meet driving his kids to school in the morning, delivering a profanity-laden tirade to the agreeable boys about how to deal with a mouthy aunt. The kids are barely out of the car before he toots up; we then follow him as he steals from murder scenes, hangs out with prostitutes, digs himself into a deep hole of gambling debt, and does about every drug he can get his hands on.
These opening scenes are like a checklist of bad behavior, and the audience could be forgiven for presuming that the entire picture will be as bleak and black and white as its title. This lieutenant is, without question, a bad, bad man. But he's offered an opportunity for redemption, of sorts: at the altar of a church in Spanish Harlem, a pretty young nun is savagely raped by a pair of neighborhood thugs. In a lesser movie, his ability to track down the rapists and avenge the crime would perhaps soften his petty crimes. Bad Lieutenant is a little more complicated than that.
Bronx-born director Ferrara (whose previous film was the slick cult hit King of New York) and director of photography Ken Kelsch observe their grimy New York City locations with the precision and detail of a good documentary, and the grubby aesthetic is just right; the handheld camerawork pulses without distracting, and some of the individual shots (like Keitel wandering through a poorly lit apartment building in a drug-induced haze, gun in hand) are downright harrowing. But it's not a flashy picture, either; Ferrara is a mature director and frequently keeps his distance from the subjects, allowing scenes to play out in long takes with an observational (rather than active) point of view, to great effect. This approach leads to a stagnant scene here or there, but when it works (as in the remarkably restrained final shot), it works wonders. Ferrara only really steps wrong once: in the rape scene, where the over-the-top, melodramatic neon reads and shock photography betray his exploitation film roots.
All of that would be for naught, however, were it not for Keitel's no-apologies, take-no-prisoners performance, which is surely the finest work he's ever done in a film. It's not a humorless performance (as he smokes crack in a project apartment building hallway, he yells down to an approaching tenant, "Get back! Police activity!"), but it is at times uncomfortably intense--he goes to some deep, dark places. As we watch him being shot full of heroin in a dank, ugly apartment (by the film's co-writer, the late Zoe Lund), we're not sure what he's doing, but it's not acting--it's too painfully personal for that. And the scene that follows, where he first confronts the forgiving nun and then (indirectly) his own demons, is a stunning, balls-out display. It's a dirty bomb of a performance.
(Two sidebars: First, it should be noted that "Bad Lieutenant" was subjected to a notorious case of music replacement, due to its numerous uses of the Schooly D song "Signifying Rapper," which used an unauthorized sample of the guitar riff from Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." The song had to be removed and replaced by a Ferrara original composition for all releases subsequent to 1994, including this one. For what it's worth, this viewer didn't notice the loss--though, strangely, the song can still be heard in the included theatrical trailer. Second, the original LIVE release used this perfect tagline: "Gambler. Thief. Junkie. Killer. Cop." Inexplicably, this release includes the same tag, but removes the word "junkie." Is a junkie cop no longer shocking?)
Bad Lieutenant was originally released on DVD by Artisan (the rebranded LIVE) in 1999, in a bare-bones edition. This new special edition was presumably done both to continue Lionsgate's pattern of re-releasing the Artisan films they acquired when they took over the company in 2003, and to tie in to the upcoming release of Werner Herzog's bizarre-looking remake/reboot/sequel/who-knows-what, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage.
As with the earlier DVD release, Ferrara's original, NC-17 rated cut is preserved (an R-rated version which ran a full five minutes shorter was released on VHS, specifically to be stocked at Blockbuster Video, which refuses to stock NC-17 films).
The anamorphic 1.78:1 image is not the prettiest picture you'll see, but it accurately grabs the film's grainy, run-and-gun, low-budget look. On the commentary track, cinematographer Kelsch complains about the color timing and black levels (he says that he shot the film much darker and says that it has a "milky" look), but also notes that he wasn't involved in the original color timing anyway. I'd be surprised if the image has been remastered since that original DVD release (there is occasional dirt and specks, particularly in the opening, black-on-white titles), but the film looks appropriately gritty and lived-in, though colors are somewhat dull and the picture is occasionally soft.
The 2.0 audio track is adequate, but that's about it. It's somewhat thin (again, presumably thanks to the film's low budget and fast shooting schedule), and though it is mostly acceptable, there are occasional audibility issues, which are periodically exacerbated by poor sound recording (as with the too-hot room tone in Lund's apartment). I suppose a newly-scrubbed audio track was out of the question, though there are enough rich audio environments (street scenes, clubs, etc.) to make the viewer long for a 5.1 option.
English and Spanish subtitles are also available.
There are only three bonus features, but that's three more than the previous release--and all are top-notch. First up is an Audio Commentary with director Ferrara and cinematographer Kelsch. It's a laid-back, personality-driven track (Ferrara is a genuine gravel-voiced New York character), and is a rare commentary that's both entertaining and informative.
Even better is "It All Happens Here" (32:57 total), a three-part featurette (divided into pre-production, shooting, and post-production). It begins with fascinating vintage news footage of the 1981 case that inspired the rape in the film; it also covers Zoe Lund's background and involvement, the lengthy run-up to the film (King of New York star Christopher Walken was originally slated to star), Keitel's introduction to the project, the exhausting 20-day shoot, and critical reaction to the final film. Most of the important participants are interviewed (including Ferrara, Kelsch, and editor Anthony Redman), and their candid reflections keep this from being your standard EPK-style promo. The only trouble is that Keitel was either unable or unwilling to be interviewed; his participation is sorely missed. Aside from that unfortunate exclusion, this is a first-rate extra.
The film's original red-band Theatrical Trailer (3:19) is also included, showing how theatrical distributors Aries Films made no attempt to shy away from the tough subject matter and banked on the glowing critical praise for Keitel's performance.
Bad Lieutenant is not exactly fun to watch--it's glum, relentless, sometimes cringe-worthy viewing, and some viewers just prefer sunny romances and fart-joke comedies. But those who can take a film this potent will find that Ferrara does his job with undeniable skill, and that Keitel's performance is nothing short of extraordinary.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.