The lead character of Abel Ferrara’s notorious 1992 film is a ‘bad’ policeman in the sense that Ed Wood was a ‘bad’ director or Liz Hurley is a ‘bad’ actress – he’s an absolute disgrace to his profession. Throughout the course of the film we see the Lieutenant snort coke from his dashboard after dropping his kids off at school, try to steal drugs from a crime scene, run a betting syndicate while investigating the rape of a nun, keep the money stolen by a pair of teenage thugs from a grocery store, shoot smack with a drugged-out hooker, masturbate in front of a pair of teenage girls he pulls over, call Jesus a "rat fuck" in church, and get further and further into debt with his mob-connected bookmaker.
Bad Lieutenant is both one of Abel Ferrara’s best films and his most typical, in that it defines all the elements that can be found elsewhere in his work. There are rambling scenes of drugged up oblivion, dirty cops and streetwise urban punks, guns, needles, and an ultimate message of redemption. And following in the footsteps of King of New York’s Christopher Walken or Angel of Vengeance’s Zoë Tamerlis (who, as Zoë Lund, co-wrote this film with Ferrara), Harvey Keitel delivers a searing central performance. He’s never off-screen and constantly teeters on the edge of parody, staying just the right side of it. It’s hard to think of another actor who could have pulled off such a balancing act – and who’d be prepared to stagger around an apartment, butt naked, whining to himself. Maybe Pacino or De Niro in the 1970s, but not now.
As a result, other characters have relatively little screen time – Victor Argo appears as a fellow cop in a few scenes, the late Zoë Lund is Keitel’s smack buddy, while Frankie Thorn plays the nun who is viscously raped in church. Her refusal to help the police catch the kids responsible, preferring instead to forgive them, is what puts the Lieutenant on a path of redemption, ultimately leading him to sign his death warrant with an act of goodness. Ferrara goes a little overboard with the Christ imagery, but the redemption is well handled; it’s clear from the very earliest scenes that Keitel’s character is a desperately unhappy man, struggling to find any sign of good amongst the scum with whom he associates. The nun’s response to her attack is the final straw – how can someone, confronted with such evil as the men who raped her, still find it in them to forgive?
The dirty, crime-ridden streets of New York are vividly captured and the assorted lowlifes that populate them are authentically cast. While not as light on plot as, say, The Blackout or New Rose Hotel, Bad Lieutenant is nevertheless another film in which Ferrara puts seamy atmosphere ahead of story, but it remains an admirably uncompromisingly work. It’s also worth noting that Schooly D’s pounding ‘Signifying Rapper’ was removed from the film following its theatrical release, due to its similarities to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ - the end credit song that replaces it features the dulcet tones of Ferrara himself.
1990's King of New York was a return to form, while the searing Bad Lieutenant quickly became the most notorious, and perhaps best, film of Ferrara's career. The nineties proved to be the director's busiest decade, as he dabbled in intense psycho-drama (Dangerous Game, The Blackout), gangster movies (The Funeral), sci-fi (Body Snatchers, New Rose Hotel) and horror (The Addiction). He continued to turn in little-seen but interesting work, such as the urban drug drama 'R Xmas and the religious allegory Mary until his higher profile returned with the likes of Welcome to New York and Pasolini.