• James Rutherford

'Bad Lieutenant': Abel Ferrara's Gritty, Outrageous Depiction of a Self-Destructive NYPD Lieutenant


Movie poster for the 1992 film "Bad Lieutenant" starring Harvey Keital

Bad Lieutenant (1992) is a gritty and outrageous depiction of corruption within the New York City Police Department circa 1991. The storyline follows an unnamed and thoroughly unscrupulous police detective (Harvey Keitel) as he hunts the streets of New York in search of two men guilty of mercilessly raping a Catholic nun.


A veteran officer with severe addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling and sex, the Lieutenant brutalizes suspects, cavorts with prostitutes and pilfers crime scenes for drugs while neglecting his wife and children at home. Set against a backdrop of a terse baseball playoff series between the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers that has the Lieutenant placing increasingly hazardous wagers, the narrative plays out the efforts of Keitel's lapsed Catholic anti-hero to pinpoint the identities of the nun's assailants and bring them to justice.


Co-written and directed by indie veteran Abel Ferrara (King of New York, Tommaso), Bad Lieutenant is a fierce tale of degradation, dishonor and at least some degree of reconciliation. Keitel delivers a career highlight performance as the stunningly abased Lieutenant—a broken soul teetering on the brink of the abyss yet desperate for absolution. Highly controversial upon initial release (including a heavily stigmatized NC-17 rating), the film's overall effect has softened over time in comparison to modern standards. Nevertheless it remains a brutally honest depiction of the human condition, beset by disgrace and the pursuit of unconditional redemption.

 

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