Writer/director Abel Ferrara is apparently very protective of his movies. When it was announced that German auteur Werner Herzog was making a remake/movie inspired by his controversial 1992 drama Bad Lieutenant, he offered the following: "I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they're all in the same streetcar, and it blows up." Ouch! With an outburst like that, you would swear he was defending the motion picture version of the Mona Lisa, or at the very least, a cinematic experience of such stunning originality and vitality that to dare touch it would somehow ruin the artform itself. Of course, none of that is true. The Nicolas Cage update, a gloriously gonzo goof, came and went with some minor critical fanfare, and yet somehow, Ferrara's original managed to survived. Now available on Blu-ray, you can see for yourself just what all the fuss was/is about. Be prepared to be a bit underwhelmed.
As the tagline says, our antagonist antihero is a "Gambler. Thief. Junkie. Killer. Cop." As one of New York's less than finest, we see this dirty policeman bet on baseball, snort and shoot drugs, defile young women, pleasure himself, and give into each and every one of his debaucherous desires and gratuitous graft a perverted policeman on the take can lose himself in. When a young nun is raped by a gang of hoodlums, it is up to our unlikeable lead to dig down deep into her personal well of Hell and come up with a way of solving the crime. By doing so, he just might discover a way to redeem his otherwise unalterable downward spiral.
At some point in the 1990s, Harvey Keitel became obsessed with showing off his penis. Most famously, he got nude early and often for Jane Campion's confounding drama The Piano. But his original willie workout came in this surreal bit of personal redemption, Bad Lieutenant. Literally redefining what a tour de force performance can be, the amiable actor drops trou, masturbates during a teen girl traffic stop, shoots H, snorts coke, gambles his salary (and then some) away, and tries to do his job as part of the thin blue line between law and the lawless, all while treating the world - as Tony Montana would say - as one big p***y wanting to get f***ed. If shock value were aesthetic gold, Bad Lieutenant would be a symphony by Schubert. If grim and gritty urban realism were dope, everyone would be good and stoned. Granted, the Catholic faith angle is way over done, drawn out like an actual Sunday sermon, and the nun rape narrative is the worst kind of catalytic red herring. But for the most part we are invested in a cruel character study, and Ferrara and Keitel deliver - dong and all.
It has to be said that the overall journey is quite compelling. Ferrara uses his familiarity with his beloved NYC to show us a locale in love with its own bustling bravado. While crime and corruption are rampant, the director does slightly romanticize the dire downtown vibe. Similarly, the various elements used to explore the cop character's "bad" side are more personal ills than serious social qualms. Keitel is still determined to do his job, even if the design of his detection is laced with too much blow and too much sleaze. Much of the insider take on this material comes from co-writer/costar Zoe Lund, who died in 1999 of her own heroin fueled failings. Elsewhere, the underrated Frankie Thorn almost steals the movie from her costars as the violated sister. Instead of playing the role for dark humor or gratuitous giggles, she's the serious core of Ferrara's designs, and her compelling presence makes what could have been merely exploitive into something almost sacred. All the while, our filmmaker fills the frame with imagines of sin and inner struggle. If redemption were a snuff film, Bad Lieutenant would be it.
Oddly enough, the whole outrageous aspect of the film now feels sort of dated. Back in the early '90s, when technology still limited outsider cinema's designs, Ferrara's fever dream was MPAA dynamite (thus the original NC-17 rating). Today, with titles like The Human Centipede, I Saw the Devil, and A Serbian Film pushing the very limits of cinematic acceptability, Bad Lieutenant is a tad...safe? Heck, it really was no brazen bra burner in its day. Instead, it was a purposeful lightning rod, a movie that mixed religion and rot in such as way as to piss off both, an experiment where baseball and a fictional World Series was as important to the plotting as crime and punishment. At its core, Ferrara seems to be suggesting that no man can give in to his horrifically hedonistic ways forever and survive intact. Some part of him will fail - his humanity, his soul...his life. As a memorable, manic journey into an individual's deepest heart of darkness, Bad Lieutenant is intriguing. It may not always work, but it has the undeniable distinction of being an imminently watchable - and worthy - partial failure.
Low budget production values - say "Hello" to the format that will out you for all your soft, grainy, color desaturating aims. Indeed, everything Ferrara employs here as a means of making his movie more "real" works against the digital update. As is the case with most outside the mainstream film fare, Blu-ray highlights instead of hiding any cinematic gaffs and blemishes. Even with a decent AVC encoded 1.78:1 1080p transfer, the image here suffers from a slew of purist provoking elements. Granted, no one is expecting reference quality from a wholly indie title from 18 years ago, but some of the flaws seems superfluous, as if Lionsgate could have easily solved them with a post-production/pre-distribution tweak. For what's it's worth, the picture is acceptable, if often aggravating.
Similarly, there's is not much one can do with a basic Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Even giving it a lossless DTS-HD mix doesn't improve things much. The sound is clean and clear, dialogue always easy to hear. There's a lack of immersion and separation and while effective in capturing the interior mood of certain scenes, there is a major sense of diminished space during the exterior sequences. It's important to note that, after its initial home video release, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page raised a stink regarding the inclusion of the Schoolly-D song "Signifying Rapper". Seems a riff from the classic "Kashmir" was included without clearance. So if you saw the film back in the day, and wonder why you don't hear the track now, blame the blood sucking lawyers.
Taking the three main bonus features included on the DVD release of this Special Edition, we get Ferrara and director of photography Ken Kelsch talking production and post-release fall out. As usual, the director is a filmmaking firebrand. Also good is a 30 minute featurette entitled "It All Happens Here". Even though Keitel is not present to discuss his part in the movie, the majority of the living cast and crew appear and argue for its place in their (and the artform's) creative canon. Toss in a trailer and you've got a decent, if slightly disappointing, selection of added content.
It takes a lot to get through Bad Lieutenant - none of it having to do with the performances or the people behind the camera. Instead, this can be an assault on one's sensibility that, at least a couple of decades ago, redefined what was and was not acceptable onscreen subject matter. Today, we celebrate the "genius" of some Danish director when he turns a fright film into an exercise in extended ass to mouth. In 1992, Ferrara was pushing much more than the boundaries of taste. While it's lost a little in the preceding translation, this is still a Highly Recommended experience. It may not always make sense or subscribe to the doctrines of common decency, but for the most part, Abel Ferrara's miscreant morality tale succeeds.