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Serpico – Review

21 Oct

There are certain movies that I’m really surprised I haven’t seen yet. These aren’t movies that stay under the radar or anything, but movies that are well known and loved by audiences. Some of them are even considered classics. What can I say? Nobody’s perfect. I just got around to seeing one of these films that I’d list in these “movies I should have seen already” categories. That film is the 1973 classic by Sidney Lumet, Serpico. I can’t even say I knew what the film was really about. All I knew was that this movie helped form Al Pacino’s career, which is kind of a big deal if I say so myself. After seeing Serpico, I have to say that I didn’t love it. I liked it and it’s certainly a movie I’m not going to forget, but it had major issues that rubbed me the wrong way. Let’s get right into it.

All his life, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) has wanted to be a police officer. When that day finally comes around, it’s a dream come true. Starting out as just a uniformed officer walking the beat, he begins to see signs that life on the force may not be what he expected, especially after seeing a suspect get roughed up in an interrogation room. As time goes on and he begins to adjust, he is bumped up to a plainclothes officer working more dangerous and criminal cases. What he sees is corruption on a massive scale with his coworkers shaking down drug dealers, pimps, and other criminals. Serpico looks everywhere for help, even going so far as to bring his grievances to the mayor. When no one is able to help, the biggest danger for Serpico isn’t the criminals he busts on a day to day basis, but his fellow police officers who feel he can’t be trusted.

Many people consider this movie a classic, and I believe that because of its impact on the genre. You won’t see any argument from me because my complaints are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. I want to get the positives out of the way first because they truly do outweigh the negatives. This was a very early film in Al Pacino’s long and praised career, and if it wasn’t for Serpico, he may not have made it as big as he did. Let’s not forget that he was Michael Corleone in The Godfather movies, but this was just another notch in making his career. Pacino is excellent as Serpico. After having spent a lot of time with the real guy, it’s no surprise that he has his voice completely altered and a lot of these mannerisms you don’t really see in other roles that he’s done. This is a complete transformation and a performance that really helped define the times in terms of acting with it being the early 1970s, one of the largest times of change in film since sound was first introduced.

The story of Serpico is also incredibly engaging. As the narrative moves forward and Frank’s plight becomes more dire, I actually felt myself getting stressed out. It’s not terribly hard for a movie to have me guessing as to what’s going to happen or feeling some sort of suspense, but this movie made me physically feel stressed. Everywhere Serpico turns, he’s met with a brick wall, and we see that over the span of over two hours. Pacino’s performance and the writing really brings this character to life onscreen, so we as an audience truly want to see him succeed and finally be able to live the life that he’s wanted. Sidney Lumet is a very talented director who is able to turn characters’ environments into characters themselves. Just think of that one room in 12 Angry Men. What Lumet does for New York City in Serpico is something on a whole new scale. Having filmed this movie in mostly all of the boroughs of New York City, I saw different aspects of life clash and combine making the city live and breathe. It’s essential to this film’s story and Lumet pulled it off flawlessly.

Speaking of flawless, this movie as a whole is not. As I was watching the story play out, I could tell that time was passing. Serpico’s apartment changed furniture, his different friends come and go, and his hair, beard, and clothes change. I figured this was probably a 3 year period. Boy, was I wrong. Serpico‘s story starts in 1960 and spans to 1971! WHAT?! I never got the sense that that was how much time was passing until after the movie was over and I was doing some research on it. If I had known how long all of this was going on, that would’ve added a whole new layer of dread to the stress I was already feeling for our hero. That being said, how smooth can you turn 11 years into a 2 hour movie? There are elements to Serpico’s life that do feel glazed over, forgotten, or rushed in favor of other interests. This kind of muddles the overall story for me, and I can’t help thinking this may have been better as a miniseries on HBO.

Serpico is a very good movie that is full of great elements that is ultimately bogged down by an overabundance of information. Al Pacino’s performance is outstanding and the overall emotional and physical response this film got from me says a lot about the story. Sidney Lumet also films New York City perfectly which brought a whole new sense of realism to the crime drama film. I just wish the story was told a bit more cohesively and smoothly, but instead I felt like I was jumping all over the place without knowing exactly where I landed. Still, Serpico has earned its right to be called a classic, and I’m not going to dispute that.

Final Grade: B+

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Good Time – Review

28 Sep

Every now and then, a movie comes along that completely destroys the conventions of its genre. Sometimes that works well, and other times it holds the movie back. It all depends upon the creative force behind the project. Ben and Josh Safdie have recently proven that they are more than capable to create a movie that defies all the rules expected in a feature film. Their newest film, Good Time, is the perfect example. The trailers for this movie had me really intrigued, but I didn’t get the proper feel of the style going into it. I honestly had no idea what to expect, but what I got was something so different and disturbing that I dare say this is a movie that should not be ignored. Good Time is a piece of art that defies all expectations and rules but also feels like one of the realest movies of 2017.

Constantine Nikas (Robert Pattinson) is a petty thief who is looking for a score that could potentially change his life. He’s careless in many ways, bust most of all by utilizing the help of his mentally challenged younger brother, Nick (Ben Safdie), with his crimes. After successfully robbing a small New York bank for $65,000, Constantine and Nick think that they’ve made it out scot free. That is until a police officer gets too close to Nick and scares him, which sends the two brothers off running with the police in hot pursuit. After a chase, Nick is arrested, while Constantine ultimately gets away. After hearing about the abuse Nick is forced to put up with, Constantine begins an odyssey into the underbelly of New York City to raise $10,000 to bail his brother out of jail. As the night progresses and more altercations keeps Constantine from the money he needs, his desperation starts to wear him down and reveal a side of himself he didn’t want to believe existed.

Something that I sort of guessed about Good Time is that it would feel very episodic. I had Collateral in mind before seeing this movie, but the two really don’t share many similarities. Good Time is very un-cinematic in the way it tells its story, and I found it a bit hard to grasp onto at first. The beginning of the movie really pulled me in, but it became hard to find the rhythm the story was moving at. After awhile, I decided to stop looking for it. I would simply let the film wash over me and wherever it went, I went. This is one of those movies that it all makes sense after it’s over and looking back on it, I appreciate it more than I did as I was watching it. Scenes lead into the next almost at random as small occurrences that seem minor are enough to shake up the lives of the few characters that share the screen. There’s little rhyme or reason as to why things happen, just that it’s the sole consequences of the characters and not for the sake of driving the plot forward. Some may say it’s anticlimactic. I say it’s brilliant.

Speaking of un-cinematic, the look of Good Time is really something to behold. It was sort of marketed as this neon lit trip down the rabbit hole like something out of the mind of Nicolas Winding Refn. There are a few scenes that do go a little over the top with the lighting, and sometime it was a bit distracting. For the most part, however, that is not the style of this film. This is a grimy, dirty, and highly unflattering film. The sets are run down and gross and the actors are made to look their worst. These are bad people operating out of bad places and the Safdie brothers really work to make that clear. A lot of scenes are also shot using off balanced angles with the foreground obstructing the view or close ups that come across as jarring. This is a disturbing film and this is really the only way this film could’ve been shot. Any other way would’ve robbed the audience of the proper tone. I do wish that some scenes toned it down with the lighting however. They didn’t always fit.

A while ago, I reviewed The Rover and I commented on Robert Pattinson’s understated but superb performance. Pattinson is one of those actors who can give an unexpectedly brilliant performance when paired with the right script and film maker. His understated performance in The Rover works really well, but his performance in Good Time is something else. This one is much more kinetic, dark, and completely devoid of innocence. His command of the screen is evident in this film and the weight of the character is clearly heavy, but he carries it all very well. Ben Safdie as his mentally challenged younger brother also gives a startlingly real performance that I wasn’t really expecting. There’s a strange cameo in the beginning by the always excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh to top off the cast of excellent performers. This may be one of the best acted movies of the entire year.

Good Time is a truly unique cinematic experience by the Safdie brothers. I’m unfamiliar with their earlier works, but if it’s anything like this I really need to check it out. That being said, I’d love to see more from them in the future because this felt like pure, in your face cinema. This is a darkly disturbing film that will make you long for the shower after the credits start to roll. If you have become overwhelmed with the summer blockbusters that have all come and gone, take a look at Good Time, but make sure you buckle in first.

Final Grade: A

We Own the Night – Review

27 Oct

One of my favorite types of movies are crime movies or gangster movies. Anything like that, really, is worth checking out. There’s just something fascinating about the lifestyle, and it gets even more fascinating when the story is set in a time and a place that really adds character to the situations the characters find themselves in. James Gray’s film We Own the Night takes place in the late 1980s, which was a time in New York City when crime was at an all time high. This caused the rise of the NYPD’s Street Crime Unit, whose tagline was the title of this film. All this history and material should make this film an instant classic, but it unfortunately fell under the radar for some reasons that became very obvious as I was watching.

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Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is a manager of a popular club that is unfortunately a host to a nefarious criminal named Nezhinski (Alex Veadov). Despite this, Bobby is living the life he loves at the club with his girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes). What the club owners and employees don’t know, is that Bobby’s father, Burt (Robert Duvall), is the chief of police and his brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), is a highly respected officer of the Street Crimes Unit. These separate lives intersect when Burt and Joseph ask Bobby if he is willing to inform on Nezhinski’s activities to them, but after Bobby declines and there’s a raid on his club, Nezhinski starts taking matters into his own hands and attacking police. As Bobby tries to resume life by any means, the gangsters operating out of his club start getting closer and closer to learning who Bobby and his family is which forces the police to start working faster and making rasher decisions.

There’s so much that material to work with to make this an epic crime film of this time, yet it falls very short of that epic scope it should have had. The first glaring issue is the uneven tone and pacing of the story. During the first half of the movie, Bobby feels very disconnected from everyone and everything, including his family and his club. Part of the reason why is because we’re just thrown right into his life without getting any history of the characters or why they behave like they do. Some set up would have really gone a long way. Once we get around halfway through the movie, things really start focusing up and the story really feels like it gets kicked off. There’s just so much jammed into the first half without any back story given, while the second half is the payoff from all of that which is done in a much more concise and focused way. It feels like this could have been a 3 hour movie instead of a 2 hour one.

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We Own the Night has an excellent cast, which is another reason that drew me to this movie. Joaquin Phoenix is one of the most powerful actors working today and he gets some really excellent scenes to show just how talented he is. Eva Mendes also gives one of her better performances, and Robert Duvall gives a very subtle yet sincere performance as Bobby and Joseph’s father. Now we come to Mark Wahlberg. I’d love to say he did great in this film since he is a fine actor, but he doesn’t get to do a damn thing. For a huge portion of the movie, he isn’t even in it, but when he is, he’s either berating his brother or sitting around in his office. When he finally does get to go out into the field, he still doesn’t do anything. I haven’t seen a character wasted like this in a really long time, and no other such egregious instances comes to mind in recent memory.

What really saves this movie from falling into the deepest pits of mediocrity are some scenes that show what James Gray is really capable of. One scene towards the beginning of the movie shows one of the most realistic depictions of street violence I’ve seen in a movie. It’s shocking and gut wrenching in its realism. Speaking of gut wrenching, there’s a car chase later on that is so un-cinematic and all the more intense for it. There’s minimal music in this scene and most of the action takes place inside one car with the the other action and sound just what can be seen and heard through the windows and the torrential rain. There’s a handful of other great scenes as well that really bolster this movie up higher.

I wanted to like We Own the Night a lot more than I did. It has all the makings of being a great movie, but the plot and tone can be so uneven and a potentially important and interesting character is completely wasted. While some of the pieces don’t fit very well, there are still some really memorable scenes and very good performances by the actors whose characters actually get to do some stuff. I was looking for a movie that was going to hopefully sit with the greats in the crime subgenre, but what I got was a movie that was a little frustrating and failed at reaching its true potential.

Final Grade: B-

Money Monster – Review

24 May

Last year, Adam McKay’s The Big Short took the financial crisis of 2007 & 2008 and made it into something that is both easy to understand, yet close to impossible to comprehend how something like that could’ve happened. It was a very smart movie that was also sharp with its comedy. We now live in a time where movies based around unfair economic system in America are a great and accessible way to get other people involved and talking. Most recently, we’ve gotten Jodie Foster’s Money Monster. This film isn’t quite as sharp or intelligent as other movies concerning this topic, but it’s still a relevant and entertaining thriller that kept me engaged for most of its run time.

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Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of an off the walls finance show called Money Monster where Gates gives investors all the advice they need to know when it comes to buying and selling stocks. On a day like any other, the show begins and for a while seems to be going just fine, up until a disgruntled investor named Kyle (Jack O’Connell) storms the studio and holds Lee at gunpoint while also strapping a vest armed with a bomb to the terrified host. After the show’s director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), evacuates all the staff not needed to continue the broadcast, Patty and Lee do whatever they can to keep the gunman at bay and also hopefully find the answers he’s looking for before the police decide to enter the studio.

Money Monster is a very topical movie that fits in very well with the world we live in today, especially concerning finances and all the different forms of media from journalism to viral videos. I compared certain elements of this movie with The Big Short, but this movie is very far from being The Big Short. This is a popcorn movie through and through, even though it does have some brain power backing it up. You won’t see any new argument in this movie and it still shows how corrupt Wall Street is, but doesn’t really break new ground. For what Money Monster is, however, that’s completely fine. It’s much more fun looking at this movie as a real time hostage movie that reminded me of something between Dog Day Afternoon and The Negotiator.

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The cast in this movie are perfectly casted, and I really wouldn’t have had it any other way. Clooney still seems to be playing a version of Clooney, but he still is a very believable character and plays all of his scenes with precision acting. Julia Roberts, who I normally really don’t care for, was great here, and a lot of that was due to the way the character was written. Dominic West, who is known for The Wire but is known to me as the hilariously over the top Jigsaw in Punisher: War Zone, doesn’t have much screen time but makes the best of what he has. I recently saw Jack O’Connell in ’71, so I was excited to see him in Money Monster. Needless to say, he did not disappoint. O’Connell is the strongest part of this movie and gives a devastatingly real performance that I could never forget.

There’s a lot of really intense stuff in Money Monster and some of the most shocking and well written things all happen in the confines of the studio. Movies that have stories stuck in one location make things feel really closed in and immediate. Save for a pretty cool third act, there’s a lot of stuff in between that is important to the story, but didn’t really make me feel anything. All of these scenes revolve around a character named Diane Lester, who was the chief of communications for the main antagonist. As she works to learn more of the truth that has been covered up and her scenes get longer and more frequent, I felt more compelled to just speed the movie up just so I could get back to the scenes with Clooney, Roberts, and O’Connell.

Money Monster certainly isn’t here to change anyone’s lives, but there’s a chance that it may come across as acting smarter than it really is. What this movie works at being is a very topical hostage thriller that fits in very well with different problems going on in the world today. It’s a movie that we’ll be able to look back on and compare with worldly events that will better help the viewer analyze the film. Money Monster is full of tension, excitement, and great performances with some weak scenes thrown into the mix just to mess with the audience. It isn’t the best movie you’ll see about Wall Street or corruption, but it’s still a good deal of fun.

Dead Man Down – Review

19 Mar

There’s a lot of unique ways to take a story that’s been told a dozen times before and tweak it to make it something resembling an original idea. Danish film director Niels Arden Oplev is no stranger to tackling stories that are painfully unusual since his biggest claim to fame is helming the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This brings us to his first primarily American release, Dead Man Down from 2013. This is a pretty interesting movie since you can see a lot of European techniques being used to tell a story set in the gritty streets of New York, but there’s also a lot dragging the movie down like poor pacing and a handful of unnecessary scenes.

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Victor (Colin Farrell) is a small time criminal working for a mob boss named Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard). Through his time working with Hoyt, he has earned a strong reputation for trust and respect and has also befriended an associate, Darcy (Dominic Cooper). Victor soon comes into contact with his disfigured neighbor, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), who takes him out to dinner one night only to show that she has evidence that Victor murdered a man in his apartment. She won’t go to the police with this if he agrees to kill the man who drunkenly hit her car and disfigured her. As Victor works with and forms a relationship with Beatrice, his true obsessive intentions with Alphonse become all too clear, which puts Beatrice and himself in the line of fire from all directions.

This is one of those hard review to write, because I really don’t have too much to say about Dead Man Down. Niels Anders Oplev and screenwriter J.H. Wyman have created a gangster/crime drama that sails the seas of mediocrity. Alright, that may be a little harsh because there are some really fantastic parts of this movie. Some of the scenes are executed in such an intense and sometimes over the top way that it sucked me right into the action. I guess that’s one really good thing I can say about this movie. The action was phenomenal. There’s one great scene where a guy is thrown out a window and is hanged by a rope around his neck while dangling in front of a gym window. There’s another great scene that’s pretty much a siege on a well fortified mansion. Those are the real stand out scenes. Everything else is kinda filler.

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While the action scenes are wonderfully constructed and memorable in their own rights, they don’t quite sync up with the rest of the movie all that well. Other than a couple of the larger action set pieces, the rest of the film is set up as a very realistic and down to earth crime drama. Then, when violence suddenly erupts, all of a sudden the world turns into a comic book where one man can take on an entire army of men. Look, I love over the top movies as much as the next guy and I can appreciate that I am only watching a movie, but Dead Man Down doesn’t really play by its own set of rules which makes it seem like it was made by a couple different people.

There’s not really much else to talk about in terms of story so it’s over to the performances we go. Everyone in this movie is pretty serviceable. Colin Farrell and Terrence Howard do their jobs just fine but it’s nothing really worth talking too much about. The only people who seem to be completely involved with their roles are Noomi Rapace and Dominic Cooper. While Rapace’s character has some major flaws in terms of how she’s written, her performance almost makes up for all of that. Cooper also just seems like he’s having the time of his life playing his part, which in turn gives his character more life than it could’ve had.

Dead Man Down was a pretty fun movie to watch, but once it’s over t left me feeling like I didn’t really watch anything of consequence. It certainly isn’t an awful movie, but it’s not one that I’m going to remember either, despite some really excellent action scenes sprinkled throughout it. This was kind of a hard review to write because I don’t have a whole lot to say on Dead Man Down other than it’s a mediocre gangster flick that sailed under the radar when it was released and will continue to do so.

Killer’s Kiss – Review

29 Nov

Without a shadow of a doubt, Stanley Kubrick is my favorite film maker of all time. In fact, the very first thing I wrote about on this blog was a rundown of all of the movies I’ve seen of his at the time. Now, finally getting around to watching one of his movies I’ve never seen before is really, really exciting. This film is Killer’s Kiss from 1955. After a disappointing start with his first feature, Fear and Desire, Kubrick was determined to really make a name for himself and show what kind of artistic flourishes he had to offer to the film world. For being a very short and totally independently produced film, Killer’s Kiss affectively foreshadowed masterworks that were to come.

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Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a down on his luck welterweight boxer who’s goal is to finally achieve some sort of recognition or success, but his prime has long since passed. He also has eyes for his neighbor, a taxi dancer named Gloria Price (Irene Kane), who is employed by the sexually frustrated and alcoholic gangster, Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera). After rescuing her from one of his drunken fits, the two quickly fall in love and decide to leave town together. What Davey and Irene don’t plan on is Vincent soon catching on to their plan, and how he’ll go so far as murder in order to guarantee his favorite dancer will stay in town and make all of his fantasies come true.

Kubrick’s early works sort of form a mixed bag of films. While it’s mainly established that The Killing is a film noir classic, many people aren’t very fond of Fear and Desire. Right in between those two is Killer’s Kiss, a film that I don’t hear discussed or reviewed as much as the other two. In my opinion, Killer’s Kiss is visually ahead of its time and beautiful and a seedy sort of way, but the story and the characters are poorly developed. I’d like to take a step away from the plot development and the characters and marvel at this movie for its visuals, but that wouldn’t be a very accurate review, would it? Still even with its faults, it’s Kubrick’s first real punch to the film industry.

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From the picture above, it’s pretty obvious that Kubrick takes the cinematic styles of film noir and utilizes them to their fullest. Even though the characters are pretty uninteresting and underdeveloped, they still are archetypical of the noir genre and fit in perfectly with the seedy New York underbelly that is fully explored throughout the film. Not only does Kubrick use style that was already seen in films of this kind, but also adds some stuff of his own that wasn’t quite the common place. There’s more tracking shots than there normally were in 1955, a boxing scenes shows some real brutal violence, and there’s an excellent long take of Davey running along a rooftop. Not to mention some of the compositions, like when Davey’s face is stretched out as the camera looks at him through a fish tank.

Killer’s Kiss, as lost in the background it may be, was truly a passion project for the 26 year old Stanley Kubrick. The only way he got funding for this film was by borrowing $40,000 from his uncle and shooting without any permits. That may not seem like a problem, but it certainly is when you’re filming on Broadway during the busiest time of the evening. In order to get some shots, Kubrick had to be filming from the inside of a car so he wouldn’t be noticed and if he had to make a quick getaway. He also had to negotiate with a group of homeless people at one point so he could use their alley for a scene.

Killer’s Kiss may not be the best written film noir or entry into Stanley Kubrick’s filmography, but it does mark the real beginning of his film career. Visually, this movie is excellent foreshadowed what was to come. The archetypes and genre tropes are all present, but Kubrick really injects the film with his surreal style that left me with many memorable scenes. Fans of Kubrick, film history, and the film noir genre should definitely make this one a priority.

Bad Lieutenant – Review

6 Feb

Abel Ferrara is one of those film makers that you either love or you hate. Some people may call his movies smutty or exploitive, but there are others who call him a true artist with a firm grasp on the medium. In my opinion, Ferrara takes exploitation movies to a more artistic level. I’ve already reviewed his 1990 film King of New York, but now I will be looking at what is objectively called his best movie. It goes without saying that it’s his 1992 crime film Bad Lieutenant.

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The Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) is not exactly the kind of cop anyone wants to deal with. He seems a little rough around the edges, but he’s more than meets the eye. He’s violent, addicted to all sorts of drugs, and gambles away most of his money. He seems to have the year’s World Series all figured out, and begins betting everything he has into the game. During all of this, he is also investigating the rape of a young nun (Frankie Thorn), but this particular case gets him thinking about his own actions and what may be the only chance he has at redemption. As his gambling and drug abuse worsens, he is pushed over his limits and begins to lose track of his own life and the parameters of his enforcement of the law.

Before I started watching Bad Lieutenant, I had it in my head that this was going to be a straightforward crime film where the Lieutenant was going to have to catch the guys who raped the nun, and along the way we would see him engage in all of his dark, illegal activities. It’s actually the other way around, in a sense. We actually see the Lieutenant practically destroy his life with drugs and gambling, and sometimes he moves on the case, but not too often. This is more of a character study than it is a straightforward narrative.

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That being said, I do wish there was more of a story. There is some semblance of a plot, but a lot of the movie is just the Lieutenant on the job in the seediest parts of New York City as he gets into all sorts of depraved things. The depravity does reach an all time low in Bad Lieutenant, and there were time that I was surprised that the character went as far as he did. He’s a reprehensible human being, but also very interesting. Still, as cool as his character is, I wanted to see more from the movie. It felt a lot longer than it actually was because not a whole hell of a lot happens by the end of the movie. I guess part of this is because I went into it expecting a more straightforward movie and wasn’t really expecting a movie as wandering as this, if that makes sense.

Harvey Keitel does do an outstanding job as the Lieutenant. That same year he starred in Quentin Tarantino’s first film Reservoir Dogs, but his performance in that just doesn’t match the visceral intensity that he displays here. It was said by the people making this film that Keitel dove really deep into this character and Ferrara left him a lot of room for experimentation and improvisation. Now, the stuff that the Lieutenant gets into, if I hadn’t made it quite clear before, is reprehensible and by the end of shooting, crew member said it was almost hard to watch Keitel get so into character.

It would be easy to call Bad Lieutenant a piece of trashy exploitation, but whoever says that would be sorely mistaken. This is a beautifully shot movie filled with disgusting people and places. Abel Ferrara has a way of filming dirty urban environments and the characters that inhabit them with such a gritty style, and rare moments of true beauty, that it’s hard not to feel like you’re really in the movie with the characters. Now that I know what it’s all about, Bad Lieutenant deserves a second viewing from me, but this movie is not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, it has the hitting power of a Louisville slugger and is as loud as a magnum fired point blank, so if you can stomach the content check out Bad Lieutenant.