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Couch Trip

Harvey Keitel's crooked cop still gets skin crawling

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Published 11/11/2009

Bad Lieutenant 
Lionsgate 

Call them what you want — 5-0, fuzz, pigs or po-po — but the police get a bad rap. It's an honorable calling that gets little respect and comes with a built-in set of jokes — usually involving donuts. And don't look to Hollywood to dispel any stereotypes. Most cops are either comic buffoons or by-the-book paper pushers who tell distraught parents, "You have to wait 48 hours before you can file a missing-persons report on your daughter." Sure, there are good cops, but the bad ones outnumber them two to one on celluloid. And the worst movie cop ever is easily Harvey Keitel's "Lieutenant" in Abel Ferarra's Bad Lieutenant.

To call Lieutenant bad is a bit of an understatement. Horrifying is more accurate. You see, when he's not guzzling liquor, indulging in sex with hookers, or stealing money and drugs from a crime scene, he smokes crack, snorts coke and shoots heroin. He's also racked up a huge gambling debt he can't repay. He confronts his life when a nun is raped and refuses to tell who did it. She says she has forgiven the boys. This impossibly saintly act causes the lieutenant to reflect on whether he can be as forgiving of his own corrupt life.

Bad Lieutenant is not an easy film to like. Back in 1992, when this NC-17 film got its scant release at the theaters, I remember a few people getting up and leaving — and it wasn't for more popcorn or a refill on their drink. The dialogue is scarce, yet explosive and fascinating. Ferarra's New York (as filtered through the lens of cinematographer Ken Kelsch) is both gritty and beautiful. Keitel is riveting and deserved an Oscar nomination for his daring and raw performance. It's a soul-crushing viewing experience, but Bad Lieutenant's gruesome depiction of moral decay and redemption is stunning. Check it out before Werner Herzog's loosely based reinterpretation starring whack job Nic Cage creeps into a metro Detroit theater near you.

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