Bad Lieutenant (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Jul 02, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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Bad Lieutenant (4K UHD Review)


Abel Ferrara

Release Date(s)

1992 (June 4, 2024)


Bad Lt. Productions (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: B+

Bad Lieutenant (4K UHD)

Buy it Here!


When the Motion Picture Association of America created the NC-17 rating in 1990, they intended it as a way to allow filmmakers to tell the stories that they wanted to tell in the way that they wanted to tell them, without having to fear the commercial stigma that had become associated with the dreaded X rating. In practice, it did nothing of the sort. All that happened was that the old stigma ended up being transferred to the new NC-17 instead, with newspapers and television stations refusing to advertise films that carried the rating, and most mainstream theatres refusing to run them. As a result, studios and even independent investors became gun shy of backing films that might end up with an NC-17 rating, and so filmmakers ended up being just as constrained as they had been previously. Well, most filmmakers, anyway. When Abel Ferrara decided to follow up his explosive King of New York with even more corrosive material in the form of Bad Lieutenant, he was given a choice between a small but workable budget provided that he delivered an R-rated final cut, or else a fraction of that money if he wanted to push the boundaries of taste. Ferrara being Ferrara, he accepted the pittance, made the film that he wanted to make, and never looked back.

That decision says nearly everything that you need to know about Ferrara and the people who repeatedly work with him. Bad Lieutenant is an uncompromising film, made by an uncompromising director, starring an uncompromising actor, and written by a person who remained uncompromising right up to her bitter end. Bad Lieutenant may be an Abel Ferrara film, but it’s impossible to talk about it without taking its scenarist into account. After collaborating with writer Nicholas St. John on six of his seven previous films (including the adult film that that they made together in 1976), Ferrara turned to the star of his second mainstream feature Ms. 45, Zoë Tamerlis Lund, to flesh out his basic idea for Bad Lieutenant. Ferrara may have a dark side, but the brilliant yet troubled Lund had a heart of darkness all her own. She was an active drug user and an open advocate for the legalization of heroin (although it was ultimately cocaine that led to her death from heart failure in 1999). Yet Lund remained deeply religious, and she saw the self-destructive central character of Bad Lieutenant as a revolutionary Christ figure. By mixing addiction with messianism, she ended up turning the whole narrative into a particularly perverse kind of redemption arc.

Ferrara actually had two different ideas for Bad Lieutenant that Lund fused together. The first was a nebulous concept about a really, really bad cop, and the second was an incident that had happened in New York City back in 1981. A nun was brutally assaulted and raped by two young men, which led to a city-wide manhunt before her attackers were finally captured. In the film, the unnamed protagonist played by Harvey Keitel (he’s simply referred to a “LT” in the closing credits) isn’t directly involved with the investigation into the rape of this particular nun (Frankie Thorn), but LT becomes obsessed with her in an outpouring of his own repressed Catholic guilt. He’s initially contemptuous of the way that her rape is being taken more seriously than all the others in NYC simply because she’s a nun, and he openly scoffs about it to his fellow police officers (Paul Calderon, Victor Argo, Leonard L. Thomas, Bo Dietl, and Gene Canfield). Yet when he eavesdrops on her while she’s in a confessional, her willingness to forgive her own attackers starts to gnaw away at the otherwise unrepentant LT.

Jesus may have died to atone for the sins of others, but LT has plenty of sins of his own to atone for. He’s not just a corrupt cop; he’s the corrupt cop, an archetype of everything that can possibly go wrong with policing, and then some. He steals from thieves with impunity and swipes contraband from crime scenes, trading it up for better shit from his dealers. Not to sell, mind you, but to use. LT snorts, smokes, and shoots up drugs with abandon all throughout Bad Lieutenant, aided in one scene by Zoë Lund herself as LT’s junkie girlfriend (and yes, while they’re just using a saline solution in the film, Lund is the one who really injected both of them). LT is anything but a faithful Catholic, so it’s not surprising that he’s also not a faithful husband. Yet in the litany of deadly sins on display in Bad Lieutenant, his downfall proves to be his ruinous addiction to gambling, with him constantly doubling down on a fictional playoff series between the Mets and the Dodgers—one that will end up defying the odds, but not in his favor.

LT is headed toward a date with destiny, in one way or another. Yet his self-induced downward spiral ends up intersecting with that of the nun who was raped and brutalized, and in an ironic twist of fate, it’s not the once-spotless lamb who ends up being sacrificed. LT may not be able to atone for his own sins, but he’s ultimately willing to at least try to atone for the sins of others, whether they deserve it or not. The recipients of his mercy end up being the rapists themselves, who the nun had described as being sad, raging boys who were needy and took what they thought that they needed. She’s willing to forgive them, and so LT forgives them as well, making a crucial decision in the process that seals his own fate. He doesn’t exactly lay down his life for his brother, but he recognizes the exact moment that he’s cut himself off from both God and man, as Lund explained to Balthazar magazine (in an interview that was published posthumously):

“When Christ asked ‘Father, why hast thou forsaken me?’, it’s the equivalent of the moment when LT is at the bus station at the end of the film; the bus pulls out with his money and the two rapists. Harvey (Keitel) grimaces and screams. That’s when he realizes ‘Oh shit, I’ve really done it now! My God, now there’s no going back.. Oh shit.’ Then he walks out to his car, drives downtown for the meeting with his bookie, and bang... And there’s a sign over him which reads ‘It All Happens Here.’”

That sign wasn’t in the script; it was just a coincidence that it happened to be on the marquee of Trump Plaza, which is where the final scene was shot (like everything else in Bad Lieutenant, without any permits or permission to do so). Like everything else in LT’s life, it was destiny for it to be there. LT couldn’t beat the odds, but he was at least able to use them in someone else’s favor. Whether or not that actually counts as redemption is for viewers of the film to decide for themselves.

In a genuinely ironic twist of fate, while Abel Ferrara may have defied the odds by making the film that he wanted to make and releasing it uncut with an NC-17 rating, the version that we have today is an edited one. Thankfully, it’s not the R-rated cut that was created to appease Blockbuster Video, which refused to carry NC-17 films; that version has been lost to the ages (though it occasionally aired on cable channels right up into the 2000s). No, while Ferrara may have successfully faced off against the money men and the MPAA, he ended up facing a far more formidable foe two years later: Jimmy Page. The theatrical cut of Bad Lieutenant prominently featured the song Signifying Rapper by Schoolly D, who “sampled” Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir for the track without permission. The song appeared in multiple scenes, including moments like when LT walks into the hospital, the rape of the nun, and the closing credits. The film apparently flew under Page’s radar until it came out on home video, when he successfully sued for copyright infringement. Unsold copies of the VHS and the LaserDisc were ordered to be destroyed, and the soundtrack was re-edited for all future releases. Ferrara felt that it ruined his film, and he refused to replace it with another song (a decision that he later admitted to regretting). Yet while Bad Lieutenant may be a better film with the Schoolly D song in place, it’s still an unforgettable experience without it. Jimmy Page may have forced Ferrara to compromise, but Bad Lieutenant remains just as uncompromising as ever. You have been warned.

Cinematographer Ken Kelsch shot Bad Lieutenant on 35mm film using Arriflex 35 BL III and II C cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This version is based off a 4K scan of the original camera negative, digitally cleaned up and graded for High Dynamic Range in both Dolby Vision and HDR10. Anyone with doubts about whether or not a gritty low-budget film like Bad Lieutenant can be brought to new life on this format is going to be in for a pleasant surprise, because the new master offers night-and-day improvements over the old one. The instability issues are gone, and aside from a faint scratch on the dupe elements used for the optically printed opening credits and a small blemish on the closing credits, there’s no obvious traces of damage remaining anywhere else in the body of the film. The contrast range is much improved, with deeper blacks but no significant crushed detail. Kelsch captured some of the interiors like the club scene on-the-fly, so there are a few shots where he pushed the exposure in order to compensate and those do look a little flat, with chunky grain, but that’s just what’s on the negative. The grain in the rest of the film is more subdued, but still present; if any grain reduction has been applied, it was done with a judicious touch. The real revelation with this new master is in terms of fine detail—gritty or not, it’s like a veil has been removed. The various fabrics on the suits worn by LT and the other cops are amazingly well delineated, as are the facial textures. It’s a beautiful rendition of an inherently ugly film.

Audio is offered in English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. Needless to say, neither of these are the original theatrical mix since Signifying Rapper has been removed and the song The Bad Lieutenant by Ferrara and Paul G. Hipp plays over the closing credits instead. As with all things Bad Lieutenant, however, nothing is quite as simple as it may appear on the surface. Bad Lieutenant was released theatrically in mono; while IMDb claims that it was Dolby Stereo, neither the closing credits nor the newspaper advertisements from 1992 display the Dolby logo. The original VHS and LaserDisc releases that include The Signifying Rapper were both plain mono as well. Somewhere along the line when the new mix was created to remove the offending song, everything else was also remixed for stereo surround. The 2.0 tracks on the DVD and Blu-ray releases both have limited channel separation and encoded surrounds. This 2.0 track appears to be identical to the previous ones, and the 5.1 track is just a discrete encoding of those four matrixed channels.

With that out of the way, the reality is that this is still primarily a mono mix, regardless of whether it’s 2.0 or 5.1, with all of the dialogue and most of the sound effects firmly anchored to the center channel. There’s a bit of added channel separation across the front soundstage, but no directionalized effects. Surround activity is mostly faint ambient effects like reverberations from the organ playing during the communion sequence at LT’s church, although there are a handful of discrete effects steered into the surrounds like the sound of a passing elevated train when LT escorts the rapists out of their hovel. The intentionally minimalistic score by Joe Delia is so subtle as to be barely noticeable, but the songs that play during the scenes set at the club have a bit of heft to them that helps to sell the environment despite the limited channel separation. Overall, this does sound better than the original mono mix did, which helps to at least partially offset the lack of Signifying Rapper.

Kino Lorber’s 4K Ultra HD release of Bad Lieutenant is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film, as well as a slipcover that duplicates the modified theatrical poster artwork on the insert. The following extras are included:


  • Audio Commentary by Abel Ferrara and Ken Kelsch


  • Audio Commentary by Abel Ferrara and Ken Kelsch
  • It All Happens Here: Abel Ferrara & the Making of Bad Lieutenant (SD – 34:02)
  • Bad Neighborhoods: The Locations of Bad Lieutenant (HD – 15:26)
  • Ken & Abel: Interview with Ken Kelsch (HD – 14:53)
  • Trailer (SD – 3:20)
  • Blue Collar Trailer (SD – 2:37)
  • The Border Trailer (SD – 1:48)
  • Clockers Trailer (SD – 2:28)
  • City of Industry Trailer (SD – 2:05)
  • Red Dragon Trailer (HD – 2:06)

The commentary with Ferrara and Kelsch was originally recorded for the 2010 Blu-ray release from Lionsgate, and it’s worth noting up front that Ferrara has been open about his disdain for commentary tracks—he told The A.V. Club that he’d “like to strangle the person who came up with that concept.” So it’s a reaction track as much as anything else, with gaps throughout whenever they aren’t interested in saying anything. Kelsch contributes more practical information than Ferrara does (he complains about the transfer, too, so he’s definitely watching the old master), but it’s still pretty sparse overall. They do refer to Bad Lieutenant as being a tale of redemption, even if the critics at the time didn’t always see it that way. They provide some detail about how they shot things on the fly and followed Keitel no matter what he did. Ferrara does complain about having to remove Signifying Rapper, although he doesn’t go into much detail here about what happened (aside from a shot or two at Jimmy Page). This is definitely a commentary track for dedicated fans of Bad Lieutenant only, but it’s still worth the trip if you’re in that group.

It All Happens Here: Abel Ferrara & the Making of Bad Lieutenant is a three-part making-of documentary that was also produced for the 2010 Blu-ray. It covers everything from the conception to the production and the release of the film, featuring interviews with Abel Ferrara, Ken Kelsch, Joe Delia, producer Randy Sabusawa, editor Anthony Redman, production designer Charles Lagola, script supervisor Karen Kelsall, and critic Emanuel Levy. It also includes an appearance by Bo Dietl, the NYPD officer who was involved with tracking down the men who raped and assaulted the nun in 1981. (Dietl has a small role in the film as one of LT’s fellow officers—he’s the one who gets offended by LT’s comments about the Catholicism.) There are some fascinating stories here, like how Christopher Walken was originally cast as LT, but dropped out three weeks before filming once he realized that he was wrong for the part. With everyone’s backs against the wall, it was actually Victor Argo who suggested approaching Keitel, and despite his initial reluctance, he took the part. Keitel stayed in character throughout the production, which was shot on real locations with no permits in just 20 days. Ferrara pushed everyone to be as bad as they could be—shooting with little to no light, spraying obscene graffiti on a real Catholic church, etc. The film was assembled quickly as well, and Anthony Redman says that his first cut ended up being more or less the final cut.

Bad Neighborhoods is a new featurette examining the locations of Bad Lieutenant, hosted by Micheal Gingold. It compares clips from the film with the way that the locations look today. Naturally, a lot has changed over the last three decades, but it’s interesting to see how many of the locations are still easily recognizable.

Ken & Abel is a new interview with the late Ken Kelsch, who died in December of 2023 shortly after this interview was recorded. (He states up-front that his legacy will be in having he second-most penis shot in the history of cinema, and it’s certainly a shot that will always loom large in his legend.) Kelsch is every bit as unfiltered as Ferrara, who he refers to as being like his dysfunctional brother, and he doesn’t hold back in describing his relationship with the director. While he had shot Ferrara’s first mainstream feature Driller Killer, they got into an argument over his potential salary for the follow-up Ms. 45, so not only did Kelsch not shoot that one, but they didn’t talk to each other for another eight years. After reuniting for a television project, Bad Lieutenant would launch the next phase of their career together. Harvey Keitel was always the most extreme on the first take, so with rare exceptions, they shot one take and just followed him around without knowing what he was going to do—Ferrara told Kelsch just to get what he was doing and keep it in focus. Kelsch didn’t think that any of his films looked alike, describing his style as being source-driven and realistic, without ever over-lighting anything.

That’s all of the extras from the Lionsgate Blu-ray, but there are a few bits and bobs from previous releases that are missing here. The 2012 Region B Blu-ray from Fabulous Films in the U.K. offered a different commentary with Abel Ferrara, as well as an introduction and an interview with the director. The R2 DVD and Region B Blu-rays from Wild Side Video in France also included the documentary Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty; scene analyses by Nicole Brenez; a featurette on Zoë Lund; her short film Hot Ticket; and an interview with producer Edward R. Pressman. There’s nothing significant missing from any other domestic releases, however.

Some people may draw a line in the sand over the lack of Signifying Rapper in this new 4K release, but it’s way past time to accept the fact that the train has sailed. There hasn’t been a legitimate home video release of Bad Lieutenant that includes the song for more than three decades now, and there isn’t going to be one in the future, either. For good or for ill, this is the only official version of Bad Lieutenant that we’re ever going to have. The audio from the 1993 LaserDisc release is still floating around, so there are ways for enterprising souls to reunite the new video with the old audio (although be aware of the fact that there’s an editorial change in the LaserDisc version of the film, so the two won’t line up without some extra effort). Altered audio or not, it would be a mistake to pass on Kino Lorber’s 4K release of Bad Lieutenant. The inherent ugliness that Ferrara and his collaborators immortalized on film has never looked so beautiful.

- Stephen Bjork

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