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Bad Lieutenants and the Bigger Picture

Updated on December 8, 2012
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It is hard to believe that the whole Bad Lieutenant phenomenon, such as it is, started with the Mets, trailing 3-0 in a 4-win series. It is thought impossible for a team in the Mets' predicament to recover. A miracle is needed. Their plight is encouraging to the Bad Lieutenant, who likes an easy bet. But he does not know when to walk away, and so he keeps running up a tab with a bookie, who, it turns out, really does not like his client. The BL has a particular world vision, and the unworldly, in particular, has no place in it. After dropping his kids off at school, he arrives at a homicide scene. One of the victims is an attractive woman in a car, and he allows his eyes -- portals to the soul, mind you -- to linger over her figure. Before long, he is discussing the series again with the other homicide cops.

The BL is a serious wreck from every standpoint. He is used to the wreckage, however, but prone enough to ever worsening febrile fits. It is amazing that he got as far as he did. Still, he is a man, human being, living creature, or however one wants to put it. It is also possible that deep down he is more than just the sum amount of the various appalling addictions and tendencies by which he is defined in the minds of everyone he encounters. Few films make one want to locate the nearest member of the Society of Jesus, but this one makes it almost mandatory. It is the fact that the soul is supposed to be so incalculably important that forces one to look beyond a plethora of eye-gouging events and the blood curdling, garbled abuse of language that seems to always accompany it.

There are distinct and offensive words for men who incessantly gamble, drug, drink, cavort, steal, lie, cheat, and bully. But these are not the same words employed by the divine mind to identify the individuals in question. Its thinking cannot be equivalent to somebody who wants to capitalize on an opportunity to feel superior. If the BL does anything, it is this. He has fallen from the lowest imaginable places. It is still an enigma as to why any doors at all would still be open to such a persona non grata, let alone the most prized of all, but that is the crux of the matter as things progress from bad to worse.

Then again, this is not exactly the movie. Rather, it is a reflection upon it, maybe only an afterthought. Consider how this man, who has not lost a minute's sleep over any of his oversights and indiscretions, is suddenly undone by a rape in the Bronx that nobody in the audience would want to contemplate. Solving the crime is not nothing, and the BL goes about it, more equipped than probably any of his peers, in his own, underworld fashion. But what about the larger picture, the grand vision that encompasses not just global movements and pageantry but the intricacies, too, of the lower depths? Eventually, the BL, who has been everywhere and seen everything, is on his knees in a church aisle confronting Christ.

Strangely, it is the second version that sends one back to retrieve the original, if only for the sake of recovering one's bearings. This can easily be accomplished, but basically to no avail. The relationship between the first and the second version is at best strained. There seems to be a definite connection involved, yet Mr. Herzog claims disingenuously never to have seen the first BL. In any event, The Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call (2009) is a much different movie, going off in its own direction, and to an extent leaving behind all issues appertaining to sin and salvation. Still, theological questions do indeed crop up, but only if the viewer is so inclined. There is precious little in the way of radiant icons and colored glass, only the fact of Katrina, a defining and signal event in New Orleans history. The narrative also centers on an ugly crime. But for the most part, the quote-unquote remake is the story of a horribly corrupt cop who regularly surfaces somehow to collect a commendation.

Either way, the BL was a strong idea, able to support two separate renditions. It affords the two main actors, Harvey Keitel and Nicolas Cage, a lot of personal creativity. The actions that take place in both movies are often over the top, but generally, if they are the type, viewers will respond favorably. All this means is that there is a great deal of substance to the "Bad Lieutenants", though it is not easy to define, and comparison-contrasts serve only to confuse the matter. Have gun, have badge, and there is a lot one can get away with, apparently. And yet, in neither case does the resultant promiscuity and cupidity do much more than point to the bigger picture without being able to shed light on it.

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