At the beginning of Abel Ferrara's shockingly powerful Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel, as a Manhattan police officer, approaches a bloody crime scene two young women have been shot to death in their car and surveys it like the cold-eyed veteran he is. As it turns out, his professionalism is all an act. This lieutenant is no dedicated cop. He's a drug-addled, sex-crazed wild man, a tormented sinner who uses his authority as a law enforcer not to fight crime but to indulge his compulsive desires. Shooting heroin and smoking crack, falling into drunken three-way sex scenes, going on outrageous gambling binges he's in heaven and hell at the same time, a lapsed Catholic feeding the fire of his own appetites. How can he stop sinning when it's the thrill of sin that's getting him off?
For more than a decade, Ferrara has been turning out ragtag ''underground'' B movies (Ms. 45, King of New York), most of which have been more fun to talk about than to sit through. Now, though, his gutter aesthetic has finally come alive. Rated NC-17, Bad Lieutenant is an exuberantly sordid exploitation movie. Ferrara turns the audience into queasy voyeurs. He sends Keitel so far over the line that the film becomes a giddy freak show, a squalid comedy of transgression. What's shocking about this dark urban fantasy is that it's driven by a true artist's fervor.
As played by Keitel, the lieutenant is the most profoundly depraved movie character since Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. In an eight-minute scene that is destined to be talked about for years, he stops a couple of Jersey girls on their way home from a disco and coerces them into performing a lewd mime show while he stands there, masturbating. It sounds like a pornographic goof, but Keitel, with his rage, desperation, and sulfurous lust, pushes the encounter to an obscene catharsis.
The case the lieutenant is working on is straight out of the tabloids: A young nun (Frankie Thorn) has been raped in church. Though drawn to the victim, Keitel spends almost no time trying to nail the perpetrators. Bad Lieutenant isn't meant to be a plausible cop thriller. It's more like a comic-book psychodrama about a sympathetic evildoer: Corrupt-Man. Ferrara still has problems with pace, but his Catholic obsessions are, in their way, as passionate as Martin Scorsese's. In his most ingenious conceit, the baseball play-off on which Keitel has wagered 120 grand a fictional Dodgers-Mets series synthesized out of actual TV clips becomes a running metaphor for predestination. If the lieutenant wins, it will mean his sinner's lifestyle was meant to be; he can have his pleasure without the pain of hellfire. But if he loses, bringing down the wrath of his loan shark, he'll deserve that fate as well. Bad Lieutenant is finally a pulp parable of sin, addiction, and redemption, a movie that, like its subversive hero, revels in the pleasure and danger of going too far. A-