What Is the Movie "Bad Lieutenant" About?

by Chirantan Basu

The 1992 movie "Bad Lieutenant" features Brooklyn-born actor Harvey Keitel as a corrupt New York City police officer who slowly comes to terms with the error of his ways as he investigates the rape of a young nun. The film explores the inner torment and anguish of a police officer, whose life has become a mirror image of the very criminals he is supposed to pursue and prosecute.


There is nothing amusing or funny about "Bad Lieutenant." The film is dark both in content and in lighting. Keitel is in virtually every shot because the story is all about the actions of this one bad lieutenant. You see him doing drugs repeatedly, accepting bribes from drug pushers, drinking almost nonstop and frequenting the dark and desolate alleyways of New York City. The film does not reveal the downward spiral that has turned the lieutenant into this corrupt and morally reprehensible character. There is perhaps a clue in one of the exchanges later in the film, in which the lieutenant explains to the nun that he could take care of the perpetrators even if the justice system could not or would not.

Turning Point

The lieutenant starts investigating the rape of a local nun, who knows the identity of her assailants but will not reveal their names. He pleads with her to seek revenge, but she chooses instead to forgive her attackers. The lieutenant cannot understand this compassion and the total absence of anger. He finally realizes that there is good in the world that is worth protecting. In a revealing scene, he breaks down on the church floor, hallucinates that he sees the crucifix come to life before him and asks for forgiveness for his sins.

Ending (Spoilers)

It turns out that the lieutenant is kneeling before an elderly woman from the community who had come to the church to return a stolen item. Using tips from this woman, the lieutenant tracks down the perpetrators of the crime, who turn out to be local teenagers just as lost and drugged up as he is. Instead of arresting them or exacting vigilante justice on them, the lieutenant puts them on a bus out of the city and gives them money he had collected from one of his shakedown operations. The film ends with the lieutenant gunned down in his car, presumably by one of the drug dealers he had been blackmailing.


The original film had an NC-17 rating for explicit sexual content and pervasive drug use. Do not watch this film with children because it is not a family film.


According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), "Bad Lieutenant" had an estimated budget of $1 million and grossed about $2.5 million worldwide. The name of the sister film is "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call -- New Orleans," starring Nicolas Cage, which explores a drug-related crime investigation in post-Katrina New Orleans.