A guy I know told me a funny anecdote about renting this in the early ’90s when he was a teenager. He said he got it at a tiny little mom and pop store in a suburb of Seattle. You don’t really see stores like that now but they used to be around, especially in the ’80s, before Blockbuster and Hollywood were everywhere. This one had a nice old man who ran it (the pop) and when this kid and his little sister brought up BAD LIEUTENANT the old man got excited. “My niece is in this movie!” he says.
“Yeah! Watch for the scene where he pulls over the two teenage girls. She’s one of the girls!”
So, of course, if you’ve seen the movie you will remember the scene where Harvey forces one girl to show him her ass and the other one to pretend she’s sucking a dick as he stands there jerking off and repeating “you ever had a guy’s cock in your mouth? You ever have a guy’s cock in your mouth?” over and over again. Well, don’t worry, one of those actresses has a proud uncle.
That’s right man, that Harvey Keitel is one bad lieutenant. I’m not talking about a baaaaadass lieutenant. I’m talking about a coke snorting, crack smoking, heroin shooting, hard drinking, walking around naked, money stealing, lying, gambling addicted, n-word using, jerking off in front of some teenage girls he pulled over, spying on a naked rape victim, law enforcement sonofabitch. That would be a more accurate title but it’s too long to fit on a marquee and gives away pretty much 95% of what happens in the movie.
I saw this movie years ago and thought it was a piece of shit, but after years of movie-watching training I have to admit I kind of liked it this time. At least for a while. The rawness of the acting, the minimalistic camerawork, and there’s sort of a dark sense of humor to it when, for example, a cop is telling a crime victim to contact them with any details she remembers because “the sooner we get that over the radio–” and it cuts to Harvey listening to the Mets-Dodgers game that he has his life savings bet on. And we know all the cops are obsessed with this series and betting money on it. One of the central events in the movie is Keitel investigating the gang rape of a nun, but there’s way more screen time spend on these playoffs.
After a while you get sick of seeing him going to different places and shooting up with different people, but especially in the early scenes it’s pretty interesting to see how things unfold. I like the scene where some guy across the street is opening up the trunks of cars and Harvey’s watching from across the street but he’s on a payphone changing his bet. There’s some obvious drug deals going on and you’re not sure if he’s gonna do anything or not. Then he runs over there and chases one guy into a building and up a couple flights of stairs but then the guy stops and sells him some crack and he smokes it right there. I guess this is not a lieutenant who chases drug dealers, except for show. Or looking for a bargain.
Keitel looks high out of his mind for most of the movie. He does at least 50 of those wookie-style yelps he did after Mr. Orange got shot in RESERVOIR DOGS. In one part he’s naked, waddling like a penguin. Trying to settle a dispute between some young guys and a store owner who says they stole money out of the register he suddenly pulls out his gun and fires a bullet at one of the kids’ heads. This guy is the biggest fuckup you’ve ever seen, but he has kids! In the hilarious opening he’s driving them to school, yelling at them for missing the bus. They complain that their aunt hogged the bathroom and that was why they were late. Harvey says “she hogs the bathroom, come tell me I’ll throw her the fuck out!”
By far my favorite scene though is near the end when he’s starting to feel, you know, bad about being a coke snorting, crack smoking, heroin shooting etc. etc. and owing $120,000 to a bookie and everything. And he can’t figure out why the nun says she forgives her attackers and won’t tell him who they were. So he goes into the church and just starts blubbering and yelling at God for allegedly forsaking him. And he’s high as usual so all the sudden he sees Jesus standing there. And he says to Jesus, “What!? You got something to say to me? Huh? You rat fucker! YOU RAT FUCKER! FUCK YOU!!!” etc. So as repetitive and as miserable of an experience this movie may be for most people, at least you are rewarded by the ridiculous sight of Harvey Keitel seeing Jesus and calling him a “rat fucker.” If there is anybody out there who is in an acting class I highly recommend choosing this monologue for one of your class assignments. If not ALL of your class assignments.
As the bad lieutenant keeps piling up the bad behavior you start to wonder where the hell this could be going. Ultimately I think it’s supposed to be a story about redemption. In the end he does break down and the way he ends up finding redemption is by not killing the nun-rapists when he finds them. He really wants to kill them, but he’s trying to be a better person so instead he puts them on a bus out of town. So it’s kind of a head-scratcher. In a way it’s deep because that is true religion right there, to forgive somebody for something that seems crazy to forgive somebody for. But frankly I don’t think not having an understanding of true Christian forgiveness is high on the list of Bad Lieutenant’s faults. He’s got bigger fish to fry in my opinion.
Man, I wish this was one of the movies they remake in BE KIND REWIND. Or maybe some kids somewhere grew up loving it and did their own remake. Or they could do an ill-advised stage musical of it. It lends itself better to a musical than GREY GARDENS, that’s for sure.
I probaly shouldn’t recommend this movie to anybody, ever, but in the irresponsible spirit of the Bad Lieutenant I recommend that every one of you see it immediately, preferably with children and grandparents in attendance. You will probaly have a fun time and if not you will forgive it and put it on a bus.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.