I hate writing about films that are actually pretty decent for this feature. Mostly because what needs to be said has already been said in nearly every way imaginable, but also because these mini essays boil down to something that’s less free form ranting and more straight criticism. So, you can imagine how disappointed I was when nothing in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant really jumped out at me as a tipping point in either direction. I’ve literally been trying to come up with an interesting angle for Bad Lieutenant discussion since the beginning of December. Now, it’s Christmas time and I’m still scratching my head and wondering whether it’s better to just outline the weird, hellish things that happen here or to try to figure out just how much this film and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans have to do with one another.
Actually, now that I mention it, the one thing that really befuddles me about the similarly titled films is how it was possible that the Nicolas Cage starring Port of Call could crib the title and be “neither remake or sequel” to Ferrara’s 1992 film? I’m not one to question Herzog when he tells me something, but it seems tremendously odd that the man claims never to have seen a Ferrara film prior to shooting his film when the two stories do have a fair amount in common. Perhaps all films about corrupt cops should simply be released under the Bad Lieutenant title. Maybe Training Day could have been amped up and called Bad Lieutenant: Lamer than the Other One.
I kid. Compared to the tripped out insanity of Nic Cage’s performance in Port of Call, the ‘original’ ran a little south of my expectations. Comparatively: it was dismal and serious. Here, Harvey Keitel stars as our unnamed Lieutenant. For a long while, the camera follows him as he runs through his criminal rounds. The Lieutenant is supposed to be investigating the devastating rape of a nun, but instead he spends most of his time gallivanting with prostitutes, chasing the dragon, tripping out stark naked in a crack house, and trying to blackmail young ladies he pulls over for speeding violations into performing sexual favors. The most vivid, reprehensible scene is one in which our antihero threatens and demeans two teenage sisters until one shows him her ass and the other feigns oral sex (on the air) while he jerks off. This goes on for way too long and is about as uncomfortable to watch as it sounds. You may wonder as you watch it if it’s actually a hugely effective way of illustrating just how low the Lieutenant is, or if it’s a sort of exercise in seeing just how many times Keitel can nastily use a euphemism for his genitalia within a span of five minutes. It’s worth noting that Port of Call has a scene like this as well, in which Cage’s lieutenant actually has sex with a woman and forces her boyfriend to watch.
Obviously, both characters are real charmers. Keitel’s, though, has none of the demented joy present in Cage’s performance. Cage, as is his nature, had a manic energy that tended to push things towards the comedic. He’s a loose cannon, sure. He’s remarkably dangerous, yes. But, we’re trained to find a raging Nic Cage fairly humorous whereas Harvey Keitel is, by comparison, a scary son of a bitch. Keitel’s entire countenance is more frightening than Cage’s. There’s nothing funny about him. He looks like he’s seen things, horrible things, and they never left him. I don’t know why, but I have trouble imagining Keitel laughing, not even a maniacal laugh. I know I’ve seen it happen before, but I can’t conjure the image. His entire face is too weighed down by the burden he carries from his visit to the lowest circles of hell. I believe Keitel’s character more. The nastiness of the performance forces the obviously culty, over the top elements to be repressed in favor of true grit and hard boiled crime. It’s an exploitation flick, of sorts, but everything about Keitel’s character reeks of a loathsome desperation. For brief seconds, he seems to want to change, to want to do something good. These solutions usually come in the form of revenge. An eye for an eye will help him heal. He never succeeds, and it never does. Instead, he makes things worse.
We begin to realize that the Lieutenant is suffering from a torment that’s self-inflicted, as if he’s decided to just go the extra mile and flagellate himself until he gets what’s coming to him. He wants to be punished, he probably wants to die; his regrets are so numerous he can no longer effectively repent, so he doesn’t try to make good. Towards the end of the film, Keitel crawls screaming on the floor of a church as a placid hallucination of Christ looks on. It’s an unnervingly odd moment of visual throat-jamming in what, I would argue, is at heart a dark morality play. I read this Bad Lieutenant the way I tend to read Bret Easton Ellis: all of the brutality, the vulgarity, the mean-spirited nihilism, and drug use are not depictions of something darkly entertaining but are instead meant to disturb and shake the audience into a realization that none of this pays. Message received, Bad Lieutenant. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like very much to never see Harvey Keitel naked again.