Before Nicolas Cage redeemed a few years worth of terrible decisions with a single role, the moniker of 'Bad Lieutenant' belonged to a certain Harvey Keitel. Seventeen years before the second film of this title, the boundaries were pushed almost to the same extreme limits, earning an NC-17 rating for its graphic account of a man truly over the edge and out of control.
The titular character is one hell of a bad influence on New York City. His drugs of choice? Heroin and cocaine, and plenty of 'em, sometimes stolen from evidence rooms. A degenerate gambler, with a foul mouth and even fouler demeanor, this cop is out for one man, and one man alone: himself. As he bets with the odds, hoping that the New York Mets baseball team cannot become the first team in playoff history to overcome a 0-3 series deficit, his demeanor is epitomized, and as he (sometimes) works the case of a nun who was raped in her church, his predisposition towards illegal activity can jeapardize his search for justice.
If ever a film were a one man show, it would be 'Bad Lieutenant.' There is hardly any time spent away from Keitel's disastrously deranged character, save for the few times where even he could be out-classed, in a sense. He's a psychologist's dream come true, with so much pent up aggression, self loathing, and negative habits that he defies nature in his continued existence. In this way, 'Bad Lieutenant' is a character study, as we watch his downward spiral dangle hazardly above the very bottom, his tortured soul seemingly inviting the easy way out that seems inevitable.
It's intriguing to see a man with a large family, abandon it all on the streets, sharing needles and prostitutes like they were sticks of a Kit-Kat bar. Yet Keitel's unnamed anti-hero seemingly revels in his abandonment of his responsibilities, both as a cop, and as a man. He is justice, despite being a petty criminal, as tainted as even the lowest dealers and killers. He is also a being of pure fate, as his actions become his undoing, in a manner that is almost exemplary of karmic retribution. It's hard to like the guy, yet it's impossible to hate him, as he's a very powerful portrayal of someone who is his own worst enemy.
Sadly, the film is a bit too rusty and clunky for its own good. Plot points seem abandoned at times, as the film rolls around in the dirt far too often, instead of advancing what little semblance there is of a grander scheme. In this way, the Nic Cage tour de awesome improved on the basic premise. We don't need to see the Lieutenant's family in this film. They're abandoned, literally, by the film and the character, and it doesn't make him any more or less tragic. It just feels like wasted screen time that could have fleshed out the part of the film that was far too lacking for its own good: the aftermath of the rape. There is so little time spent on this facet of the film, that it also seems a bit too far out of left field.
No amount of great performing by the daring Keitel could make up for the shortcomings in the story. No amount of keen direction by Abel Ferrara could have compensated, either. 'Bad Lieutenant' is an exploitation piece, and nothing more, meant to shock audiences into giving a damn about the lowly character we see on screen, as his gambling on a fictional (and unrealistic) National League Championship Series between the hometown team, and their rivals, who were once from Brooklyn (featuring the Mets past star, Darryl Strawberry). Was the erratic and selfish Straw meant to be an ironic parallel to the Lieutenant, or was that just severe coincidence? Is it fitting that we see a Dodger squadron that is 90 percent Darryl, much like we see a police squadron that is 90 percent Keitel? In a film that features more of Harvey's genitalia than it does plot progression and logic, we may never know.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Bad Lieutenant' arrives on Blu-ray via Lionsgate on a BD25 disc housed in a cut-out eco-case, labeled a "special edition." The disc packaging indicates the release is Region A locked, however, I successfully played the film on my Region B player. This title is currently available at Best Buy, as the store has the title, as well as an entire Lionsgate catalog wave, for sale exclusively until the regular street date in early October.
With an AVC MPEG-4, 1080p encode (at 1.78:1), 'Bad Lieutenant' is a fairly subpar catalog release. The picture is slightly wobbly, and somewhat flat, with wonky skin tones, some random artifacting, and some scratches and blemishes, to boot. Night sequences have a steep drop in detail and clarity, and extremely problematic shadow detail. Black levels fluctuate, and the random incredibly soft and blurry moments, while few in number, can pull you right out of the viewing experience. I didn't feel edges were a problem, nor was aliasing, but this isn't the best looking release on the market, for a number of reasons. While some of this can be excused by the age of the film, there is no doubt in my mind that this disc could have looked better.
'Bad Lieutenant' receives a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix that neither thrills nor disappoints, showing the film's age like a badge of honor. Dialogue isn't always the clearest, as some lines get lost in the mix, while separation is average at best. Volume spikes are nice, but somewhat rare. Gunshots lack any real punch, just a tiny pop like a cap gun, while bass isn't present in either channel, a conspicuous absence, particularly in the club scene. Throw in some light hiss, and you have yourself a somewhat average track for an almost twenty year old film, limited by its source material, without truly benefiting from the high-def jump.
Harvey Keitel may have given his career-defining performance in 'Bad Lieutenant,' but not even that can elevate it above the muck it rolls around in. Short and sweet, but often too damn meandering and random, the film has the right idea, but the wrong execution. The Blu-ray release is pedestrian at best, leaving this as a fans only title. That said, shameless plug time: check out Nicolas Cage at the top of his over-the-top game in 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,' for a look at how some simple changes to the formula could create an amazing, riveting film.