Not many actors would want to be shown in this light, especially at the age Harvey Keitel was during the filming of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. By this stage both De Niro and Pacino had ceased their select few roles where they took risks and really dedicated themselves to a character. They had lost their intensity or simply chose to hang it up because what else did they have to prove. I'm not a method actor so I can't judge. Keitel has taken risks his whole career, but has never received the credit that the former names garnered. That's a positive in my books because when you see a Keitel film it feels even that much more fresh.
Bad Lieutenant is unapologetic in its content and both Ferrera and Keitel are uncompromising in their vision and performance. It's a rough watch. Not that it particularly violent, not because of the sexual and drug abuse content, but because Keitel portrays it so convincingly. The film is very reminiscent of the themes of Scorsese's films with emphasis on the struggle between good and evil, the element of Catholicism and guilt. Keitel's character, simply labeled the Lieutenant is a despicable man. When he is not smoking crack, he is making ludicrous bets on baseball or blackmailing teenage girls to act like whores while he masturbates. He is on a slippery slope to say the least...not a nice man. Even in the most intense film roles we recognise the character as the actor, but Keitel is too sincere here, allowing himself to be filmed completely naked (cock and all) while drooling vodka down his chin and crying.
The subplot comes into play when there is a horrific crime where a nun is raped in a church by two local street toughs. This crime doesn't seem to affect Keitel and his deeds at first, but as time passes he is unable to comprehend how the nun, who knows who her violators are, will not give them up and asserts that she has forgiven them. We don't even need to know who her attackers are because we understand that there is know real plot, we are just watching to witness what deplorable act the Lieutenant might commit.
Before the Lieutenant realizes that the nun fully forgives these men, he has no hope of salvation religiously, and even in terms of health. He know's he is wrong, sinful and is fully aware of his drug abuse. He understands that his demise is approaching considering his baseball gambling debts, but he figures that if the two rapists can be forgiven by a mere human then maybe there is hope for him and he can make his peace with Jesus. The drugs and paranoia lead to hallucinations in the third act as the lieutenant is alone in a church screaming out his rage at Jesus ("where were YOU!!!"), who stands in front of him before begging for forgiveness for his sins. He kisses the feet of Christ, who turns out to be an elderly black lady, who leads him to the rapists. In order to follow in the footsteps of Christ and the nun he lets them leave New York with all the money he has. Soon after he is shot. He is free.
Werner Herzog made Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans in 2009 and claimed that it wasn't a remake or sequel, and that he never even heard of the original. The nerve of that crout. Not that his film was terrible and it is not a remake or sequel, a completely different style, but the character is clearly based on Keitel's and the balls to actually claim that he never even heard of the original...that's simply disrespectful. This time around Nicholas Cage plays the Lieutenant and there is no comparison. This film was a lighter, commercially acceptable film. I havn't seen an actor give a more daring performance since, possibly before. It's not pretty.