Version I Watched: Widescreen uncut NC-17 DVD.
History: In terms of production this is a quaint film. Shot in as little as eighteen days with a $1 million budget and received very well by critics. Still upon it's release the movie met a fair deal of controversy, getting slammed with the infamous NC-17 rating. Since then it's been seen as quite a controversial film. Understandably there were two home video releases, an edited R rated release and the original NC-17. Mostly so it would fall in line with video rental store policies since at the time Blockbuster and Hollywood Video wouldn't rent out NC-17. As one extra note to that, while most NC-17 cuts are for violence or sex the main concern here was drug use. Something that doesn't happen as often.
All the five and a half(ish) minutes of cuts and alterations are detailed in this article. NSFW.
Personal History: This is my first viewing. However I have seen the kinda/sorta/not really remake/sequel Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans. A movie I remember kinda liking, but would have to see again before I made proper judgement. It's been a while.
Review: Bad Lieutenant is a very literal title. Unless your movie is called Snakes on a Plane you can't get much more literal than Bad Lieutenant does. Because our 'hero' in this tale is a very, very bad man. And these ninety six minutes of bad are somehow so very good.
This is likely a movie you've heard of but never seen. Come to think of it as time goes on it seems to be forgotten more and more. It was very well received and is still considered to be a modern classic. But I can't think of the last time I've heard anyone talk about it outside of the Nick Cage 'version' from a few years ago. Let me tell you this movie definitely deserves respect because it was a top notch, early 90s low budget drama.
Which believe it or not was initially one of the reasons why I wasn't sure if I would like this or not. There were a lot of great low budget movies in the 90s. Indie or not. Of course I didn't get to them all but found myself a tad over-saturated by the time I was a couple years into college. Going in I knew this is a movie I would have loved when I was in high school. As for all these years later I wasn't quite sure. To be honest even the plot didn't give me a ton of hope. When you see one movie about a crooked cop you think you've just about seen them all. Boy was I wrong. I was wrong big time. Bad Lieutenant is an excellent movie despite what you may think going in.
There were two things that stood out to me making it what it is. The way the story was handled and the rating.
Let's talk about the rating first.
A few months back I wrote an entire post about the NC-17 and Unrated ratings and the infamous movies that came from it. The titles I chose were exceptional titles. Movies that didn't just go beyond the R rating but slapped it in the face with the explicit content they had. While NC-17 and 'Unrated' material have quite a reputation to them. The thing is that many of these movies aren't as explicit as your imagination may drive you to believe. That is definitely the case here.
Now when I say that I mean in terms of consistent explicit content. So many R and higher rated movies in modern time have such consistent explicit content it seems jarring when you put in a twenty year old NC-17 movie only for there to be not a ton of swearing and only a few really, exceptionally intense moments. It's like the R rated Wolf of Wall Street is less explicit and more explicit than Bad Lieutenant at the same time. Somewhat true, somewhat false. But only in terms of how often explicit content comes up.
Bad Lieutenant is a case where technically just a few cuts could make this an R-rated movie despite the original edit down to an R being around five minutes. And those edits truly are around the most intense scenes of the movie. Whereas the rest of the movie, while not mainstream, wouldn't be the cause of such an infamous rating. Hell, in the right comparison I've heard more swearing in PG-13 than here. Not with words like 'fuck' of course. But I mean the number of times a person cusses period. You can say 300 'shits' or whatever (slightly exaggerated) in a PG-13 and you're okay but two or three 'fucks' and it's game over. Censorship at it's finest. Anyway the swearing wasn't as noticeable as other movies. Still this movie is quite brutal when it needs to be and despite everything I've said about the rating I truly feel the content shown is essential to the story.
I know plenty of people would make the argument the story will stay the same if it didn't have said explicit content but I disagree. There are reasons why the explicit content is here and it's for the same reasons many horror movies are as graphically violent as they are. Sometimes, many times the "what you don't see is the most terrifying thing" works. Here I can't imagine the movie without the intense material. This is a cop who is a total scumbag. He's constantly getting high, stealing, taking advantage of others, and the list goes on. His methods are brutal and life kicks the brutality right back at him. If it was toned down for an R rating then it wouldn't hit as hard. Taking it from a vicious morality tale to another typical "Drugs are bad, mmkay" story about a crooked cop.
Matter of fact, the explicit content was considered so important to the story one of the scenes was used in one of the original movie posters. Kinda NSFW.
More on the explicit content later. I just wanted to get that out of the way first for the right context.
So with that let's get to the meat and potatoes of the movie... the story.
As I stated before I was worried this would be just another crooked cop story. Predictable, dull, maybe objectively well done at best. Instead what I got was an incredibly emotional, beautifully put together tale of a rough life and the search for forgiveness. Kinda hard to see at first since it revolves around the rape of a nun. I told you this movie was rough.
And to play the part of the bad lieutenant himself is Harvey Keitel. While Christopher Walken was originally eyed upon to play the role I seriously cannot think of anyone better than Keitel to play the part. He live and breathes the personality of a rough and tough New Yorker and as a cop. As can be seen in his many movies where he plays the part among similar personalities. A good comparison is watching him in The Last Temptation of Christ where he plays Judas... if Judas were a rough and tough New Yorker. Not to say the man doesn't have range and variety. He goes all directions in this role. Come to think of it, this may be his finest role.
And what we get most of all is the character. If anything I'd say more time is spent with the bad lieutenant in his personal life than him investigating the crime of the story. We see him snorting cocaine, drinking heavily, not spending time with his kids and even when he is at home he's passed out on the couch from drunkenness or too many drugs. Also it shows an incredible amount of detail in the humility of his life.
Remember the poster I mentioned before? The link you followed that showed Keitel nude with his naughty bits covered by the title? That scene comes early in the movie when he's getting high with a couple of (likely) hookers. What the poster doesn't show is the humiliating image of Keitel standing nude high as a kite, holding his arms out and whimpering like he's in pain. A lengthy, no cutaway shot of this sad image of a man with major problems he both can and cannot control. His Mr Hyde is shown later when he actively takes advantage of a situation. He pulls over two young girls claiming it was because their taillight was out. When he finds out they don't have a license on them he threatens to call their father unless they do something for him. He forces one girl to pull down her pants to show him her ass as the other girl is forced to simulate oral sex while the bad lieutenant masturbates right there next to the car in the streets.
As I said before, these moments are essential to the story. It's one thing to say he did it. It's another thing to insinuate he did it. But to actually see him in such sad and dark states hit me in a way I did not expect. I half-expected to get the shock factor without the emotion. Again I was wrong. These scenes and more of what comes next hit me so hard I was surprised. Not just because of the shock, but the emotions felt for and against the scumbag character.
This all blends in with the themes of the case he's investigating throughout the story. As I briefly mentioned the major crime here is the rape of a young nun. Appropriate considering a clear theme is the lieutenant's faith (P.S. I keep calling him the lieutenant because his real name is never revealed). He calls himself a Catholic but he doesn't show it. Yet in all his dark actions you can see in his character how much he hates his life and himself, looking for a way out. How desperate he is to feel something. Especially in the multiple drug scenes. Like the one late in the movie when it shows the lieutenant receiving drugs through a needle and they show the whole process. Filling the needle, finding the vein, injecting, etc, all while the lieutenant slowly nods off into numbness.
This movie is rough but has a less than predictable ending.
One of the best scenes of the movie happens shortly before the end. Lieutenant has been through the ringer. Hard drugs, tons of drinking, and is now tens of thousands of dollars in debt because of multiple consecutive bad bets on the world series. He finds himself in the church with the nun who was raped earlier in the movie. She is kneeling, praying, and tells lieutenant she has forgiven her rapists. There were some hints she knew them before and there was something more going on, but in the end it felt more like an act of faith. The forgiving nature of Jesus Christ channeling through her. This is something lieutenant cannot conceive of.
She leaves the sanctuary and lieutenant has a total meltdown in front a vision of Christ himself. This is a brilliantly acted scene by Keitel. He looks into the eyes of Christ, damning him. Asking him where he was when he needed him. Eventually asking, no, BEGGING for forgiveness. A not so subtle approach to the theme but a well executed one none the less.
After this lieutenant finds the rapists. Instead of taking them in he does something unexpected but fitting for the story. He handcuffs them, takes them into his car at gunpoint, mentally torments them while driving them to a bus terminal to out of town, and forces them to get on. In an effort to find forgiveness of his actions he seemingly forgives the rapists just like their victim did by letting them get away. Morally questionable, beautiful storytelling. And while it would have been interesting to see how his life played out beyond this the movie ends with him gunned down in his car shortly after this. I guess the world wanted to get karmaticly even despite his... good deed?... just them.
And with that you get a rough yet rewarding morality tale. In a way like Requiem for a Dream where the brutality of the story is equally beautiful. If you made it this far you know it's not for the weak of heart. It's a very hard watch for most. If you're up for it then you won't be disappointed. Just be sure to keep an open mind on what is beautiful and artistic. Because sometimes beauty is not so beautiful.