Bad Lieutenant

The Trigger-Happy menace gambles, boozes, snorts, shoots up, jerks off, staggers around in the nude and spews out a storm of "fuck you's" to anyone who messes with his next degrading thrill. He's also a husband, a father of four and one of New York's purported finest. Playing the title role in Abel Ferrara's raw and aspiring Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel whacks you like the business end of a Louisville Slugger. It's a powerhouse performance in a film of jabbing intensity and wit. But you'll probably never see it.

Bad Lieutenant is packing an NC-17, a rating invented in 1990 allegedly to remove the X stigma from serious films and still protect moviegoers seventeen and under. Actually, it's a ticket to oblivion, since most theater chains won't show NC-17 films and most TV stations won't run ads for them. The studio-financed ratings board is basically a front to protect Hollywood from the threat of state and local censorship. Distributing alternative versions of one movie to every burg in the nation would break the studios. So they like to make a show of being moral watchdogs. By giving an occasional NC-17, they indicate that they're doing their job. But the rating, which can cut a film's potential audience by fifty percent, tends to go to risky independent films, not studio sleaze like Basic Instinct. Equating art and porn, the rating stifles creativity and free expression and helps to maintain the major studios' hold on the mass audience.

Ferrara (Ms. 45, King of New York) is betting that his system-bashing Bad Lieutenant will dodge the NC-17 jinx. Naive? Maybe. But the film, whatever its flaws, has an undeniable morality. Ferrara and co-writer Zoe Lund (who contributes a vivid cameo as a drug connection) have crafted an almost biblical tale of redemption. The film opens with the Lieutenant (he's never named) doing coke behind the wheel of his car after dropping his kids at school. A radio voice announces that the Mets have lost three straight to the Dodgers in the playoffs. The Lieutenant has bet more than he has on L.A. His lethal bookie makes him so antsy that he later shoots his car radio when the Mets score a comeback. Ferrara uses the tension of the last four games, reflected on blaring radios and TVs, to parallel the Lieutenant's crisis of conscience.

One crime cuts through his drug-induced stupor: A young nun, beautifully played by former Elite model Frankie Thorn, has been raped in church by two Hispanic boys. They've desecrated the altar and lacerated the nun's vagina with a crucifix. Ferrara and his keen-eyed cinematographer, Ken Kelsch, stage the rape scene for dread, not exploitation. The Lieutenant, a lapsed Catholic, is filled with rage. But the nun, who knows her attackers, won't name them. "I ought to have turned bitter semen into fertile sperm, hatred into love," she tells her confessor as the Lieutenant eavesdrops.

The crime drives the vengeful Lieutenant into a frenzy. It's a pattern. He does as much stealing, drugging and dealing as the creeps he busts. Now he performs his own act of desecration. He pulls over two teen girls (Bianca Bakiia and Eddie Daniels) who've sneaked out for the night in their daddy's car with some grass. Terrified of being turned in, they submit to a grotesque sexual pantomime. "Show me your ass," he says to the passenger, who kneels on the front seat. To the driver, he says, "Show me how you suck a guy's cock." Standing outside the car, he watches the girl roll her tongue as he masturbates. The scene lasts an agonizing eight minutes. No clothes are removed, and no physical contact is made, yet the obscene horror of exploitation has never been so searingly rendered.

Keitel, a Scorsese veteran, knows these mean streets. But the spiritual journey he makes this time is particularly wrenching. When the Lieutenant finally tries to redeem himself through goodness, the act comes so unnaturally to him that he howls like a wounded animal. Few American films have so tellingly detailed the painful withdrawal of a reformed sinner. It would be gratifying indeed if the movie dynamite of Ferrara's impassioned, visionary Bad Lieutenant could help bring down the barriers the scam ratings system has built between artist and audience.

For many filmgoers, the only rating more disreputable than NC-17 is G, as in gag me. The animated Beauty and the Beast undid some of the sugary curse. But Aladdin, Disney's worthy follow-up to Beauty, is so funny and scrappy you don't need to drag a kid along. Even a work-in-progress print shows a wicked new playfulness (think Simpsons, not Snow White ). Granted, for an Arabian Nights tale there could have been more ethnic richness in the script and the drawing. But Robin Williams, who does the voice of the Genie, is a hip comic wonder – he might just wish himself up a cartoon Oscar. Imprisoned in a magic lamp for 10,000 years, the Genie has stored up a lot of shtick, including dead-on De Niro and Nicholson impressions. Gilbert Gottfried is also a howl as a pissed-off parrot. Besides the in jokes, the animation and the Alan Menken score (Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS, did most of the nimble lyrics) supply enough glorious entertainment to hold even brats and cynics in thrall.

From The Archives Issue 642: October 29, 1992
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