Sunday, 25 July 2010

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

You know, everyone uses that shot of Keitel pointing his gun at the
camera, so instead here he is jerking off in front of some teenage girls.

When I first heard that Herzog was directing a remake of Bad Lieutenant starring Nicholas Cage, I thought it was a great idea; the perfect synthesis of Herzog weirdness and Cage's ludicrous overacting. In the end it wasn't quite as crazy as I was expecting, and instead I developed an itch to rewatch the original. It had been years since I saw it and I didn't remember too much about it except for a few famous scenes and the fact that you saw Kietel's dong. For some reason male full-frontal nudity was a big deal back in '92. Mostly I remember it being a joyless slog, but since I was probably drunk at the time I decided to give it another chance.

In this film Harvey Kietel plays a policeman of questionable moral fiber. He is not named as far as I can tell, so I'm going to assume his name is Lieutenant Bad. The guy is a real asshole and an absolute drug friend; there is barely a scene where he isn't shooting up heroin, smoking crack, snorting coke or gulping down liquor. At one point he shows up at a girl's house (Zoe Lund from Ms. 45) to freebase some heroin, and when she answers the door he's holding a six-pack and swigging out of a can. I assumed it was beer, but it turns out to be Diet Coke, which is arguably worse. The label is featured quite prominently, so if it was product placement it was a pretty ballsy move on behalf of the Coca-Cola Corporation.

Even worse it seems like he doesn't care about crime at all. In one scene he just watchesa guy break into some parked cars as he casually talks to his bookie on a pay phone. The closest he comes to doing his job is when he wanders into a crime scene, steals whatever drugs and cash he can find and then walks off. In one scene he walks into the aftermath of a convenience store robbery and shakes the criminals down for money, right in front of the store owner and with another cop a few meters away. I don't know how he gets away with it. Makes you wonder how he ever made it beyond Bad Detective. You never see him at a police station or anything. If he didn't chat with some of his fellow officers now and then I could have easily assumed that he was just some maniac pretending to be a cop, like Maniac Cop.

Once thing I forgot about the film is that he has kids. There's a pretty funny scene where he berates his two boys as he drives them to school and then sits in his car snorting coke as he watches them walk into the school building. There's something about fatherhood that makes his behaviour seem that much worse, particularly the famous scene where he sexually harrasses two teenage girls. Under the threat of calling their parents he blackmails one into showing him her ass and the other into miming fellatio while he talks dirty and jerks off. It's a pretty uncomfortable five minutes, and to cap it off I think he ejaculates all over the side of their car, adding insult to injury.

One thing I really liked about the film was that you get this real sense of Catholic guilt. Keitel renounces his Catholocism, but still there's no escape for him. Everywhere he goes the film hammers him with religious iconography. Jesus is watching. There are rosary beads hanging from his rear vision mirror, those teenage girls he harrasses are wearing crucifixes, and I especially liked the drug dealer with the Jesus-themed couch cover. Nothing says piety like lighting up your crack pipe as you park your ass on the face of the Lord.

This all ties into the crime that drives Kietel into making a last shot at redemption. A nun gets raped by a couple of gang members, and although she knows who the perpetrators are she refuses to tell the police. She has forgiven them, like Christ forgave the nun-rapists in Bethany. Kietel doesn't get it: Surely the best thing for her to do would be to turn them in so they couldn't do it to anyone else? This all culminates in that incredible scene at the church, where Kietel blames a drug-induced vision of Jesus Christ for his problems, eventually breaking down and begging for forgiveness. One thing this film has over the remake is a pretty fantastic performance from Kietel. Nicholas Cage's acting style may be entertaining but it's not believable. Kietel is. You will believe a man can call Jesus a "rat fuck".

The whole movie is set against the backdrop of a baseball match between the New York Mets and the LA Dodgers. I don't know shit about baseball, but the gist of it is that the Mets start making a miraculous comeback after trailing the Dodgers 3-0. Darryl Strawberry gets mentioned a lot. Kietel bets against the Mets each time, losing over and over again and getting deeper into debt. A lot of time is devoted to this sub-plot; it's always on the television, on the radio, it seems to be all anyone talks about. His mulleted bookie tries to warn Kietel that he's attracting the attention of some dangerous people, but he just laughs it off.

As things spiral out of control it becomes clear that there's only one way the film can end, but they still wrap things up in a pretty interesting way. In a typical "bad cop" movie, your Dirty Tom, Dick and Harrys, you put up with the crooked cop because you know that in the end the he is going to go mete out some "street justice" by going places that the law can't. Here you expect something similar, specifically for him to shoot the two rapists in the face, but they pull the rug out from under you. Kietel knows he is going to die, so his last ditch attempt at redemption is giving the rapists a bunch of money and putting them on a bus out of town. I also like how bus driver just sits there watching Kietel slap the shit out of these assholes until they get on the bus. I probably would have driven off.

Herzog claimed he'd never even seen this film and that the title was just a marketing exercise. I can believe that, since the two films deal with similar material in pretty different ways. In the remake the Bad Lieutenant just wanders around doing crazy shit until the situation resolves itself. Here the situation is worse but the character has more of an redemptive arc, like It's a Wonderful Life with drugs and sexual harrassment and Jimmy Stewart waddling around in a Christ pose with his weiner hanging out and crying. Therefore I have to award the points to the original, although I think Ferrara might have gone a little bit far when he said that everyone involved in the remake should "all die in hell". I think the world is big enough for two Bad Lieutenants.

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