FILM / A turn to churn the stomach

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The Independent Culture
ABEL FERRARA'S films used to be watched only by video-nasty connoisseurs and select committees on pornography. Recently, he's been hauled out of the gutter and greeted like a long-lost auteur. The breakthrough was The King of New York, which squirted some politics into the usual bloodbath. Bad Lieutenant does the same with religion. It feels like B-movie Graham Greene. The Bad Lieutenant, like the Whiskey Priest, has no name but his vice. At the end of the movie he launches into a self-pitying harangue about trying to do the right thing, but not being strong enough - Greene without the pathos or the poetry. For The Power and the Glory, read The Porn and the Gore.

The film opens to a radio baseball commentary, and the action takes place in four days of a series. While the players lap the ballpark, the Lieutenant, who has bets riding on the results, cruises the outer circles of hell. His daily life is a round of drugs, fornication and gambling. He doesn't allow duty to stint his perverse pleasure. When he catches a pair of girls driving without a licence, he gets them to perform sexual acts while he masturbates. A novel way of taking the law into your own hands.

It needed a great performance to breathe life into this monster of depravity, and we get it. Harvey Keitel wrings out every last drop of sleaze, slouching and slurring his way through the film, sweat on his brow and blood on his collar. Early on we see him tottering naked while he tries to hold on to a vodka bottle with one hand and a whore with the other. His body, shot from behind, has an ironic golden glow. It looks bruised but muscular: a fine thing gone to seed. His face is bewildered and weepy. We feel the emptiness of the Lieutenant's pleasure: when he masturbates, his features tighten in pain; when he shoots up, his open mouth seems to register resignation rather than ecstasy.

Keitel's most memorable characters have always been troubled - harried by conscience. He's played both the worried cop (Bad Timing) and the worried robber (Reservoir Dogs). His characters think too much. The Bad Lieutenant thinks he can unpick the riddle of the World Series, and gambles his all on it being a fix. As in Reservoir Dogs, it's a flicker of goodness that leads him into the mire: he involves himself in the case of a raped nun. In church, he has a vision of Christ, falls to his knees and lets out the wail of a felled beast.

It's a bravura performance, marred by the macho swagger that is the film's besetting sin. Ferrara wants to lead us into new depths of darkness. The upside is a glancing portrait of urban decay: New York through the Lieutenant's speeding window is a grey blur relieved only by squiggles of graffiti. The downside is too many lingering shots of needles entering veins. The film is not so much shocking as stifling. After a while you want to watch the baseball, even if you don't know the rules.

It's hard too to justify showing the rape of the nun - shot in stroboscopic red light, like a disco video. Ferrara says he wanted to make it different. It would also have been different if he'd made it horrific. There's something disturbingly sexy about both the rape and the later scene when the Lieutenant spies on the nun being examined in hospital. No doubt Ferrara's covered himself with references to movie voyeurism. But did the nun have to have the Venus de Milo's breasts and Cyd Charisse's legs?

Alongside Mean Streets, re-released this week, Bad Lieutenant is a weakling kid brother trying to talk dirty. Keitel is the only constant: he's smart and solicitous in the earlier film, but still with doubts. The difference is that in Mean Streets he's part of an ensemble: the film has the depth of a novel. In Bad Lieutenant he is the film. The rest is a video nasty with pretensions.

Tired of being labelled a beefcake actor, Robert Redford seems set on becoming a treacle-tart director. The glints of arrogance that saved even his blandest acting roles have been abandoned for tip-toeing sensitivity. His third film, A River Runs Through It, is a paean to fly-fishing, set in the pre-war mid-West. In America it was a box-office hit. A Nation Sat Through It.

It's not hard to see why. The film does a bunk on the real world and takes you to an earlier, more charming model: a place of dappled yellows and greens, sunlight on the waters of the Blackfoot River and pews packed with parishioners. We're whisked there with elegiac efficiency - sepia photographs and a single, mournful violin. It's the world, give or take a tinted Hollywood lens, in which Norman Maclean grew up, and which he described in the autobiographical novel the film is based on.

Norman, as played by Craig Shaffer, his square face settled in premature middle-age, is a classic, accommodating older brother, nicknamed 'Preach' because he's expected to follow his father into the church. It's his brother Paul (Brad Pitt), all rough charm and raw talent, who's the film's centre and mystery. Fly-fishing, gambling and women are his passions - in that order. An affair with an Indian leads to brushes with bigots. His love of cards spells bigger trouble from the local hoods. Norman tries to help, but Paul is stubborn and unknowable.

Paul's shady personal life is redeemed by his masterly fly-fishing. Through his artistry he achieves a kind of grace. 'In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing,' Norman explains. Throughout we are meant to equate the two. Next to Godliness, fishiness. When Norman's brother-in-law, Neal, turns up late for fishing with a whore in tow, Paul dismisses his excuses about a heavy night: 'I didn't get home at all, but I was on time.' To rub in Neal's degeneracy, he gets burnt sunbathing and has to walk home bare-assed.

It's difficult not to feel for him, faced with the supercilious Macleans. When they fish together, they beam vacantly like door-stepping Jehovah's Witnesses. The film fails to draw us into their reverence for fishing. Richard Friedenberg's screenplay has won an Oscar nomination but it distorts the book's fish-eye view of the world. We don't even see much fishing. When we do, it's magnificent: the rod's brief backlift, a wristy flick, and the line billowing into the sky before the frantic tug. You expect to see slow motion and underwater shots, but Redford idles in the mainstream. The credits reveal that during the filming 'no fish were killed or injured'. It's a fishing film that doesn't approve of fishing.

Gillian Armstrong lifted feminism on wings of fantasy with her first film, My Brilliant Career. In The Last Days of Chez Nous, she presents a more realistic heroine - The Feminist Who Fell to Earth. Beth (Lisa Harrow) seems to have it all: a career as a writer; a free but loving marriage to a French charmer, JP (Bruno Ganz); and a bustling Sydney menage. There's a daughter (Miranda Otto) and a sister, Vicki (Kerry Fox), who leans on her so much she might as well be another daughter. When Beth takes a long car trip with her father, she half-expects her dependents to fall apart. Instead they flourish. Her daughter gets it together with the lodger. JP falls for Vicki. Beth gains a father but loses a husband.

The events might have made high tragedy. But Armstrong shoots them with a hectic good humour that purges the film of pity and blame. The film dances with energy. It's as hybrid as its title, a glorious muddle of old and new worlds. Beth is caught between the sullen Australia of her father and JP's Gallic suavity. It can all feel too good-natured. When JP and Vicki make love, the jazz soundtrack is drowsily complicit. Beth lays waste to the bathroom, but her rage is defused by a jaunty lute. We're not allowed to get involved. That we do is thanks to the performances. The pick of them is the flame-haired Kerry Fox, of An Angel at My Table, who's moved from chronic diffidence to shy sexuality.

In the first five minutes of Hellraiser III we see a man's skin ripped off and another's head blown apart. Then it turns nasty. There's some inventive use of CDs for decapitation and zoom lenses for head-butting. Otherwise it's the same as before. The villain, Pinhead, still looks as if he's been called out of the acupuncturist's. The good news is that the production values have improved. That's also the bad news, as it means the series is making money and there'll be more.

'Bad Lieutenant' (18): Odeon Haymarket (839 7697), Renoir (837 8402), Screen on the Green (226 3520). 'Mean Streets' (18): Camden Plaza (485 2443), MGM Panton St (930 0631), Electric (792 2020). 'A River Runs Through It' (PG): MGMs Shaftesbury Ave (836 8861), Trocadero (434 0032), Haymarket (839 1527) and Fulham Rd (373 6990), Whiteleys (792 3324). 'Last Days of Chez Nous' (15): Metro (437 0767), Chelsea Cinema (351 3742), Camden Parkway (267 7034). 'Hellraiser III' (18): general release. All nos 071.