Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The annals of bad taste: "Bad Lieutenant"

"Bad Lieutenant" is the second entry in my ongoing list of films festering in politically-incorrect humor, action, sex, themes, with or without shoddy production values. The first entry, 2007's "Postal" was a self-serious disaster directed by hack-extraordinaire Uwe Boll.

1992's "Bad Lieutenant" is artful yet unsubtle film making. It belongs in the Annals of Bad Taste not because of the quality of work, but because of the content.

Within the first 25 minutes of "Bad Lieutenant," Harvey Keitel's titular character smokes crack, draws his cop buddies into an illegal gambling racket, has a threesome with two lesbians and encourages misogynistic behavior in his two grade-school age sons.

And those are the easy-to-watch scenes. The film not only earns its NC-17 rating, but dives headfirst into a pool of dead MPAA member's severed heads.
I don't know if it was because I was so taken back by the sharp abrasiveness of the film, or if it was never mentioned, but I don't even know what Keitel's character's name was, or where his bank statements are mailed to. One night he sleeps at the aforementioned three-some crowd's crib, the next he stays at some heroine-chic looking model type's who loves to freebase, and the next he's staying over at his Mom's house.

To say Keitel's character has friends is an exaggeration at best. The man displays an impenetrable shell to the other police investigators. But, all his cracks start on the inside, and they grow more obtuse until you can nearly see him splitting open.
The film is firmly rooted in its early '90s setting with a Dodgers/Mets National League Championship Series used as one of the few clues to how many days have passed. Throughout the film, and during many of its scenes void of any dialogue, the games are broadcast in the background on the car radio, or on a bar TV. Watching the Dodgers continue to lose as Keitel digs a deeper whole effectively adds tension and suspense throughout its hour-and-a-half run time. Director Abel Ferrera allows viewers to follow the baseball series without characters talking about it incessantly throughout the film. As his gambling debts begin to build, and he levies his debts from the previous NLCS game double-or-nothing on the next, bookies, drugs and his job close in tighter with each passing minute.

"Bad Lieutenant" is a character study, one that throws around religious imagery, drugs and sex with equal abandon. But character studies still need a plot, even if it is barely used to progress the film's events. "Bad Lieutenant's" excuse for existence hinges on the rape of a nun, its forcing of Keitel to revisit his Catholicism and eventually his slurred, yet charmed investigation into the crime.

This is not a movie to actually like, or even one to endure again, but it can be respected. No other film, besides "Requiem for a Dream," can claim such brutal honestly in its depiction of addiction. There is one scene that I don't feel comfortable describing in detail. Let's just say it involves Keitel repeatedly asking a pair of 15 year-old-girls, pulled over for not having a license, if they have ever (rhymes with bucked) a man's (rhymes with sock), before progressing onto sexual acts.

Ferrara is known for his uncompromising, gritty film making. His best known work, "King of New York" was nearly cartoonishly violent and over-the-top — think "New Jack City" but with more Uzi's and a scene-chewing lead performance by Chris Walken. "Bad Lieutenant" takes an ugly character, gouges out your eye balls with his likeness and ends with a morally interesting yet ambiguous and baffling decision. Is he redeemed? Can anyone be redeemed? Is forgiveness greater than justice, even if that forgiveness is selfish? Ferrara leaves it in the hands of the viewer to decide.

PS I just learned this is being remade by Werner Herzog with Nicholas Cage staring, not kidding ... fear for your eyes.

here is the original's trailer:

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