Movie News & Reviews

Big Awful Friday: Keitel makes being bad look good in 'Bad Lieutenant'

Logically, time travel is impossible, or people from the future would already be here.

Possibly they're just very, very small or very, very boring and we haven't noticed them yet, but I've spent enough time facedown on the carpet to know no tiny people are hiding there.

Yet Bad Lieutenant is strong evidence we've got a working time travel program. How else would you explain how a movie that's clearly from the '70s -- a main character struggles with drugs and nihilism against a dirty and insane urban backdrop -- ended up appearing in 1992?

Harvey Keitel's a coke-snorting, crack-smoking, drunk-driving degenerate. He's also a cop. As he investigates the rape of a nun, his gambling debts grow more and more mountainous, fueling his downward drug-soaked spiral.

That's just about an encyclopedic recap of everything that happens in Bad Lieutenant. Its plot is not its strong point. Its plot isn't even its "You'll grow into yourself if you'd eat something besides Cheetos and Pepsi once in a while already!" point.

Yet I couldn't take my eyes off it in much the same way I can't take my eyes off the spider in the corner of my bathroom who watches me while I shower. Keitel's character is creepy, threatening, but compelling -- his behavior's ruinous, but he seems powerless to slow himself down.

Director Abel Ferrara offers up this behavior without comment or judgment. Then again, I don't see what there is to criticize about a cop abusing his authority to coerce young women into sexual favors. Is that a crime now? I may have to reschedule my weekend.

Ferrara provides just enough central narrative to stop Bad Lieutenant from drifting into a disconnected morass of crimes, drugs, crimes, and more drugs -- Jesus would have to die a few times for all Keitel's sins. But he's turned away from religion, which he sees as delusional, and sought refuge in chemicals, which it turns out is suicidal. He's chasing answers, but his search has him circling the drain.

Watching that search is a distressing, trying experience that aptly recreates Keitel's distorted state of mind.

Compelling yet repellent, Bad Lieutenant is a bold, graphic, physical assault of a movie. Don't go in expecting hugs and puppies.

* Contact Ed Robertson at