Convincingly unlikable 'Bad Lieutenant'

August 06, 1993|By Scott Hettrick | Scott Hettrick,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

BAD LIEUTENANT

(Live, $92.98, rated NC-17 and R, 1992)

Cinematic character studies can be among the most compelling types of dramas. The character in question doesn't even have to be a good person. In fact, the most interesting subjects are those with multiple and/or major flaws.

But it is absolutely necessary that the character be empathetic or in some way likable.

Unfortunately, the lieutenant in this film (we never learn his name) is so utterly despicable, depraved and out of control that one not only never cares about him but even roots for his demise so he will put himself and the viewer out of their respective misery.

It's unfortunate because the character is played absolutely convincingly by the underrated Harvey Keitel, who always seems to completely submerge himself in his roles. It is ironic that it is perhaps because of Keitel's intensity that the character is so unlikable.

Strangely, early on, director Abel Ferrara seems to be trying to establish some humanity in his New York City cop by showing him driving his two young boys to school. One of his sons even kisses him goodbye, establishing a strong sense of mutual affection.

There is also some humor near the beginning, as the lieutenant argues about baseball with his peers at a murder scene.

But very quickly Ferrara slams our heads to the pavement with rapid-fire scenes of the lieutenant's revolting excesses of just about every flavor. His baseball discussions turn into bets of ridiculous sums. When we expect him to return home to those two boys, instead we see him using drugs and having sex with two women. (The NC-17 rating presumably stems from a scene in which Keitel stands stark naked in an apartment temporarily paralyzed -- a statue -- from the drugs.)

In a nearly unbearable scene, he stops two under-age female motorists and threatens them unless they strike erotic poses while he masturbates outside their car.

Day after day he wallows in the gutter, stealing drugs and money from criminals. When a case involving the rape of a nun on a church altar causes him to have religious hallucinations, we know that he realizes he is out of control.

But it is too late for both him and the audience. He can't be helped and the audience doesn't care.

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