By Andrew Stevens.
With Werner Herzog’s disclaimed ‘reworking’ of Bad Lieutenant riding high and provoking the ire of Abel Ferrara, revisiting the original appears in order. The 1992 original and its PMRC-baiting (if not goading) themes of Christianity, drug abuse and perversion ended a run of Ferrara films which took New York, alienation and Catholicism as their common jumping off points, beginning with 1979’s Driller Killer, via Ms.45 and Fear City. At the time however, critically speaking at least, it was the film’s clunky car masturbation scene which garnered the most derision and represents its sole cinematic low point.
Central to Bad Lieutenant is Harvey Keitel. Having established his recurring gangster/cop stock character in Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver during the 1970s, Keitel then played a string of cop roles during the 1980s, most notably in 1983’s Cop Killer. That he worked again with Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ only underscores his centrality to the film’s beating heart and the pervasive Catholicism. No other casting could have worked.
The nun-raping within the film was somehow regarded as transgressive at the time but in an era when the priestly raping of Sisters in AIDS-ravaged Africa is reported all too frequently, the debased antics of a New York detective seem positively routine subject matter. For all Herzog’s protestations that his Nicholas Cage regeneration of the eponymous lieutenant bears no resemblance to Ferrara’s work, the Nouvelle-Orléans setting and social impulses retain much of its consumption by Catholicism.
First posted: Saturday, May 29th, 2010.