Viking Night: Bad Lieutenant
By Bruce Hall
December 9, 2014
The great thing about a Harvey Keitel movie is Harvey Keitel. The not so great thing is the fact that there aren't enough of them. The man works with an offbeat set of tools - a pugilist's looks and the vocal palette of a constipated mental patient equal not-so-obvious leading man material. That is, unless it's 1992 and you're filming a story about a junkie cop on a downward spiral into oblivion. When Nick Nolte wants too much money and Mickey Rourke is too busy getting punched in the face to call you back, Keitel is your man.
And when you're Abel Ferrara, and your previous directorial effort is King of New York, there really is no other choice. But where King of New York is self-indulgent and smug, Bad Lieutenant is raw and painful, like an open wound that you know will never heal. Ferrara and screenwriter Zoe Lund (whose own demons would claim her some years later) craft a viciously psychotic and symbolic look at a man best described as a turd circling the bowl - and it is only due to Keitel's spellbinding performance that it transcends its protagonist.
If you can call him that.
The eponymous Lieutenant begins the film setting a bad example for his kids, teaching them to solve problems with profanity and violence as he drops them off at school. Then, he semi-discreetly sniffs coke off the back of his hand in the crosswalk before driving away. But homicide is a tough job, right? Nothing jump starts your day like a little fist bump, right? The Lieutenant also runs the department betting pool, encouraging his peers to make risky bets, and then using their money to wager against them. Dishonest. Yes. Potentially critical plot point? You tell me.
The Lieutenant's drug intake is so legendary that his dealer is mildly surprised to see him alive every week. He drinks so much that when he hires hookers to entertain him, he has to quietly hang out and drool on himself, because the little Admiral just won't salute. He treats crime scenes like his own personal Sam's Club, stealing evidence and putting it up his nose whenever possible. He makes arbitrary traffic stops on pretty girls so he can choke his chicken all over the side of the car. When this is how your character arc BEGINS, rest assured it’s only going to go downhill from there. And it does.
The story runs parallel to a (I assume) fictional seven game series between the Dodgers and the Mets, with the Mets down three games. The Lieutenant is convinced the Dodgers will eventually win, so as I mentioned, he encourages his men to bet one way while he bets the other. Of course, the bets start going south, and the debt starts piling up. And so do the lies, when his friends come looking to get paid. Instead of getting out while he’s ahead, the Lieutenant continues to double down, insistent the Dodgers cannot continue to win. Even though I don’t follow baseball, I know it makes no sense to bet on the Mets - but neither does smoking crack at two in the afternoon, so in that context it’s completely understandable.