Monday, March 28, 2011

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

by Alec “It’s snowing in September!” Cizak

There used to be a saying among those in Hollywood that the movie industry was a Jewish business selling Catholic morals to the Protestant masses. That’s no longer true. Hollywood pushes one moral at this point—“Why can’t we all just get along?” And they push it in every single goddamn movie they make.

Anybody old enough remembers where they were the first time they heard that phrase. The early 1990s was marked by a tide of hatred towards law enforcement. I might go so far as to blame the Republicans and their amped-up “war on drugs” for this phenomenon. Just as incompetent as their handling of the AIDS crisis (“don’t have sex!”), the “war on drugs” was propped up by a desire that Americans remain stupid and chatter “just say no” like zombies. Another prescription was to put more cops on the streets and eradicate the Fourth Amendment (nobody wrote about this better than Hunter S. Thompson). Pretty soon, people were losing their property based solely on suspicion and they rarely got it back, even after they were proven innocent. We were entering the age of America as a Police State and folks, especially young folks (like me, at the time), were pissed off.

In those days I carried a copy of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton in my car and if I rolled up next to a cop, I put the tape (pre-queued) in and blasted “Fuck tha Police.” Of course, I was a punk-ass white boy, and if the cops even knew what the hell the song was coming from my shitty little Chevy, they just laughed and probably said, “There goes another punk-ass white boy supporting the sadistic side of the music industry.” But I knew I was part of a movement that culminated in the events that unfolded in Los Angeles. First the beating, then the bogus trial, and finally, The Riots (Reginald Denny should be part of that story, but the way his attackers were so obviously let go in compensation makes me sick, so I, like the rest of the country, pretend that part didn’t happen). When I moved to Koreatown in 2001, the ghosts of those turbulent days lingered, nearly a decade later. Korean shop owners were quick to tell their stories of protecting their stores. They sounded like war veterans. Half of the Ralph’s at Third and Vermont is still missing because it was burned down in the riots and nobody bothered to rebuild it.

But, as I often do, I digress…

Showing up in my hometown, Indianapolis, just after the L.A. riots, was Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. It played at the Irving, a rundown artsy-fartsy joint on the east side that showed all the movies my Bible-thumping neighbors wished didn’t exist. It’s too bad they dismissed it so quickly, calling it ‘trash’ and ‘subhuman’ without even seeing it. Bad Lieutenant is a very religious movie about cops, coke, and Catholics. Ferrara had said a few things about Catholicism in an earlier film called Ms. 45, but that belongs in a different category, so I won’t waste much time on it here.

The story is framed by a playoff series between the Mets and the Dodgers. Our hero, known only as The Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel), has many addictions and gambling is the one that will ultimately do him in. Throughout the film he second-guesses the gods of baseball and builds an enormous debt he’ll never recover from. We see early on that he has kids. He takes his sons to school, admonishing them for not telling their aunt what to do—“Are you men or mice?” he asks them, suggesting they tell their aunt to “get the fuck outta the bathroom!” when she’s keeping them from getting ready for school. If his use of the word ‘fuck’ every two seconds in front of his boys doesn’t tell us what kind of parent he is, perhaps when the kids get out of his car and he decides to snort some coke in the parking lot of their school will. Right away, Ferrara makes sure we don’t think he titled his movie inappropriately. And for those of us who had come to suspect cops as the real bad guys, our opinions were instantly justified.

The movie foreshadows its conclusion when the Lieutenant shows up at a double-shooting. Two girls are dead in a car. The Lieutenant looks them over for a moment, then goes to talk gambling with some other officers. Next on his to-do list is pretend to chase down a crack dealer in a shitty apartment building where he trades some hits of rocked-up coke for an evidence bag filled with powder. When a woman in the hallway complains, the Lieutenant tells her to go back into her apartment, demanding he’s engaged in “police activity.” After taking some of the powder for himself, he visits a woman with a fantastic body and someone who looks so gender-free we have no idea if it’s a man or a woman, where he engages in a bizarre threesome. While the girl and the gender-less wonder mock-fuck on the bed, the Lieutenant pours some vodka in a shot glass and then tilts the bottle to take a real shot. The Lieutenant dances with the other two and then, naked, holds his arms out like Jesus Christ, preparing the audience for the film’s Catholic message.

After taking money stolen by small-time thugs at an Asian grocery store, the Lieutenant goes to visit an anorexic redhead who freebases heroin with him. While the Lieutenant is enjoying the fantastic mix of chemicals in his system, a nun is raped. We get a brief scene in the Lieutenant’s home, though we never get any sense of which one of the grown women there is actually his wife. Nor, for that matter, do we ever see the Lieutenant at a police station doing paperwork (the staple of a good cop movie, according to Billy Friedkin). No, he just strolls through New York City doing blow and smack and drinking and banging strange chicks and gambling. Kind of makes you want to be a cop!

Just before learning about the raping of the nun, the Lieutenant visits another crime scene where a hooker tells him there’s a bag of coke behind the back seat. He tries to get it out and into his jacket but drops it on the ground and has to act like a real cop and introduce it as evidence. When he’s told about the rape, he accuses the church of being “a racket,” no different than the mafia. He assures his fellow officers that he’s a Catholic despite his suspicion of the church.

The Lieutenant becomes obsessed with the nun, maybe out of good old Catholic guilt, or maybe because the same mob he owes money to is offering a reward for the capture of her attackers. He stares at her in the hospital while she’s naked on a table. Before going to the scene of the crime, he stops and redefines sexual harassment when he pulls two teenaged girls over and threatens to call their fathers if one doesn’t show him her ass while the other pantomimes a blow job. The Lieutenant jerks off, right there in the street and walks away. This is one of a few scenes that earned the film an NC-17 rating. Some might wonder what purpose it serves, other than to continue the theme that this cop is a real scumbag. Because it comes (no pun intended) halfway through the movie, I believe there is a comparison being made to the two girls who were found dead in the beginning of the film. Ferrara seems to be equating the Lieutenant with the killer, suggesting they are equally dangerous. This will help the audience accept the film’s stunning conclusion.

The Lieutenant goes to the church where the nun was raped. He passes out and wakes up while ‘good’ cops are actually investigating the scene, gathering evidence. He does nothing to help them. Instead, he drives around listening to the next game in the playoff series, snorting coke and drinking vodka from a pint he carries in his jacket. When the game goes bad, he shoots his radio and screams racial slurs at Daryl Strawberry (a real life crack junky). The Lieutenant attends services with his family and is threatened by a representative of his bookie in the back of the church, basically giving weight to the Lieutenant’s contention that there is no difference between a Don Capo and the Pope. We see the extent of the Lieutenant’s disregard for his family when he snorts coke right off of a stack of family photos. He pulls more dust up his nose at a club and then, in one of the most inexplicable scenes in the movie, visits a Hispanic family that gives him thirty-thousand dollars to pay off some of his debt. He smokes some crack in the hallway, pointing his gun at a woman who steps out of her apartment, then goes home and sets up a meeting with his bookie. He visits the redheaded woman one more time. This time they shoot the heroin directly into their blood, showing the film’s progression from mild to lethal drug use which, in turn, drives home the point that the Lieutenant is on a mission of self-destruction. The woman lets loose some bizarre philosophy about junkies and, perhaps, American society in general—“We gotta eat away at ourselves…until there’s nothing left but appetite.” Hmm, sounds profound. Might make more sense if I was on junk as well.

The Lieutenant confronts the nun, demanding, “How could you forgive these mother… these guys?” She reminds him what it means to be a Catholic and leaves the Lieutenant to break down before the altar where we get a good dose of Harvey Keitel’s famous crying. He hallucinates Jesus, standing in the aisle, who then turns out to be a black woman, which makes a lot of sense since black women in America are probably treated worse than any other U.S. Census category of people. Why anybody would think Jesus would waste his time in New York City is beyond me, but that’s another discussion for another time. The woman takes him to the boys who raped the nun. While the audience is hoping the Lieutenant will either shoot them in their faces or bring them in for “justice,” the Lieutenant has, instead, found religion. Whether it’s before or after he shares a rock of really good crack with the rapists, we don’t know. It may not be important.

He puts the kids on a bus and gives them the thirty-grand and sends them off to start their lives over. Parked outside of Madison Square Garden, underneath a sign that says “It All Happens Here,” some mobsters roll up and shoot the Lieutenant dead in his car where he will be found, just like the girls in the beginning of the film, by cops with more important things on their minds than who the victim is and why he was killed. In the final moments of the movie, the Lieutenant becomes Jesus, sacrificing himself in the name of forgiveness.

I know there are some bad-ass sons of bitches who will scoff at this movie’s finale, but I think they’re posers. I think this movie meanders in a stoned and drunken stupor towards a very powerful revelation about what makes Catholicism a philosophically profound set of beliefs. Yes, the church itself is corrupt, but the power to forgive is holy and sacred and very hard to accomplish. It’s the reason we can call the Lieutenant a hero after all the terrible things he’s done to himself and other people. Bad Lieutenant is one of the last great independent films this country has produced. And if you like movies about people getting wasted, this one certainly won’t fail you.


  1. "Nailed it"? No pun intended, right?!

    No, really, great piece on a great flick. I always felt the nun was, when she refused to name her attackers, in the wrong. Justice on earth must be served. She can forgive them, but they still should have to face consequences of their actions. Bad LT and the nun may have "religion" but the truth is that two criminal rapists are still free...

  2. Will -- Good point. Religion doesn't account for natural, Darwinian instincts. In this case, the instinct is that the rapists must be punished. Keitel's character, at one point, asks if the reaction wouldn't be so harsh if it hadn't been a nun. Again, religion playing a role in how a situation is perceived. Women are raped every day, are there rewards being offered for the capture or killing of their attackers? Why not? Tricky subject, for sure.