Meaner Streets

Try to imagine Hunter S. Thompson as a New York City cop. That's Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant in a nutshell.

Harvey Keitel plays the profane, heavy-betting, dope-sucking, whoremongering police officer of the title. It is a role that affords this underrated actor the kind of exposure that has eluded him to date: full frontal nudity. In addition to the family jewels, we get to see Keitel masturbating (fully clothed) in the rain, shooting up heroin, and writhing on the floor of a church while licking blood from the feet of a hallucinatory Christ. Lest we doubt Keitel's dedication to his craft, we are also treated to closeups of a real syringe being plunged into a bulging vein on Keitel's wrist, then wiggled around a bit for good measure and left there for what seems an eternity. It's that kind of movie. Ferrara isn't content to make a point; he wants to rub our noses in it.

Ferrara has acquired a reputation as a gritty stylist, a sort of bargain-basement Scorsese, despite the fact that he demonstrates none of the latter's flair for camera movement or shaded character development. King of New York, Ferrara's 1990 effort, owes much of its success (however limited) less to the director's adroitness than to a trio of riveting performances by Larry Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, and Christopher Walken. Ferrara's leading men tend to be graduates of the Walter Hill school of silent, stoic machismo. But luckily, he's able to latch onto actors like Walken and Keitel, who can make such one-dimensional characters compelling.

Bad Lieutenant opens with the title character, who remains nameless throughout the film, tongue-lashing his kids while transporting them to school. They have committed the egregious crime of allowing their aunt to dawdle in the bathroom, which has made them all late. After dropping them off, the irate father ingests a small mound of cocaine before he's even left the school's drug-free zone.

Keitel's bad cop is so rotten he's funny. This is a man who ignores an armed robbery in progress to lay down a bet (against the hometown Mets, no less!), who clears out a crowded hallway by hollering "Police business!" so he can complete a drug buy in peace, and who eyes the nude bodies of a freshly raped nun or a just-dead corpse with equal parts compassion and prurient desire.

Images like these suggest an intelligence at work in Bad Lieutenant that might have made it a great film instead of merely a lurid and repugnant one. Ferrara could have created a surrealistic, misanthropic world rife with possibilities for comic anarchy A Dirty Harry directed by Almod centsvar. A cop makes book in church, gets so high he falls asleep while investigating a crime scene, shares a crack pipe and watches part of a ballgame with a pair of rock heads he has just busted, and rudely intrudes upon a nice young drug dealer who is helping his little sister with her homework. Forced to wait while the dealer retrieves payoff money, the lieutenant sits uncomfortably beside the dealer's understanding mother on a couch upholstered with an image of Jesus. The mother, seeing how strung out the lieutenant is, gives him some more crack.

Darkly funny stuff. But it all falls apart when Ferrara plays it straight. Time and again he goes for shock value over subtlety, until the viewing experience becomes an ordeal. Two thugs rape a nun in church, desecrate the altar, snuff out cigarettes on her breasts, then violate her with a jagged crucifix. Even though she knows who did it, she refuses to name her assailants and melodramatically offers this explanation: "I ought to have turned bitter semen into fertile love." Right.

There are no sympathetic characters of consequence to root for in this hell-on-earth, a glaring miscalculation in the absence of any plot to move things along and pique our interest. Ferrara goes to great lengths to ensure that we won't empathize with the lieutenant, so that as his predicament worsens, we're almost pulling for him to catch some hot lead and be done with it. It's a far cry from Johnny Boy, the off-the-wall De Niro character in Scorcese's Mean Streets, who also owes a lot of money to some bad people, but who nonetheless elicits sympathy because he's basically an okay guy.

The lieutenant, on the other hand, is downright creepy. We lose any feeling for him we might have been able to muster when he randomly pulls over a car with a pair of frightened teenage girls inside and coerces the driver to simulate fellatio while he masturbates outside the car window. Knowing the lieutenant is capable of such abuse makes his rage at the nun's brutal violation seem shallow and contrived.

And when her forgiveness of her assailants causes the lieutenant to undergo an epiphany, it rings about as true as an election-year campaign promise. It's doubly unfortunate that this is the one point at which Keitel's otherwise fine performance goes over the top A he whines, howls, and thrashes about like a novice actor with a Brando jones. We almost expect him to gnash his teeth and cry, "Stella!"

True, it's only one false move in a movie conceived for maximum adrenaline rush, but it couldn't come at a more inopportune moment. We're supposed to believe that the bad lieutenant has learned his lesson from the nun's unshakable piety, and in the process has earned a measure of redemption. When he finally locates the rapists and follows the nun's forgiving lead by putting them on a southbound bus (presumably headed for a safer, more reputable Miami), it feels less like a clear-headed act of contrition than a futile, desperate gesture by an unhinged man.

 
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