I have a bad habit of occasionally purchasing second-hand DVDs solely for their shoddy cover art. I don’t think I’ve ever topped myself in this trivial pursuit since the day I purchased a bootleg copy of some forgotten cop thriller titled Corrupt Lieutenant. The cover for my obviously unofficial copy of Corrupt Lieutenant is a master work of outsider art & visual anti-comedy. Falling somewhere between rudimentary Photoshop collage & a nightmare swirl of stock photography, it’s the exact kind of utter garbage my terrible raccoon brain can’t help but hoard away at home instead of just letting it rot at Goodwill. Unfortunately, that means these movies sometimes collect dust, unwatched for years until I force myself to follow through on actually giving them a chance. As it turns out, Corrupt Lieutenant not only has some of the best-worst artwork I’ve ever found on one of these ill-advised excursions to the thrift store; it also stands as one of the few select examples I can think of where it turns out the movie itself was actually worth the gamble. As far as cop thrillers go, it’s not exactly mind-blowing, but considering the state of its cover art it’s a miraculously competent picture.
It’s worth noting upfront that my unsanctioned copy of Corrupt Lieutenant isn’t even titled correctly. Although it’s been released under the alternate titles The Order of Death, Corrupt, and Bad Cop Chronicles #2: Corrupt, this Italian crime thriller was originally distributed under the name Copkiller, which is by far its most apt moniker. Since the distributors of the film allowed its copyright designation to slip into public domain status, however, it’s been repackaged several times over in disparate stabs by a wide range of enterprising folks trying to make a buck. This is how Copkiller was retitled Corrupt Lieutenant in the early 90s after its star antihero, Harvey Keitel, was featured in the infamous Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant. The two films don’t really have all that much to do with each other outside of Keitel’s starring role in both. The Ferrara picture plays like an especially deranged version of a Scorsese crisis of faith exploration, while its Italian predecessor is more of a sleazy, giallo-esque knockoff of the crooked cop genre Friedkin ignited with The French Connection. Performances from Harvey Keitel and a typically acting-shy Johnny Rotten combine with a score from omnipresent Italian composer Ennio Morricone to afford the film an air of legitimacy, but its shitty public domain transfers, off-kilter Italian dubbing, and sleaze > substance ethos are all constant reminders of its true place in the world as a forgotten work of mediocre genius.
A killer dressed in a police uniform and ski mask is terrorizing the cops of New York City by murdering them one by one, seemingly at random. A young John Lydon plays a spoiled brat punk who confesses to these crimes to Harvey Keitel’s grizzled lieutenant. Keitel’s either believes the confession or is angered enough by its flippancy to falsely imprison Lydon in his own apartment, since the rest of the force is treating him like a liar and a prankster. After a period of keeping the smirking punk tied up & torturing him for a more detailed confession (he feeds him out of a dog food bowl, shoves his head in an oven & cranks the gas, etc.), Keitel’s forces his prisoner at gunpoint to actually slit a cop’s throat, an ill-considered plan that backfires in a wide variety of ways. While figuring out what to do about that cop’s death, Keitel’s finds himself seducing the widow of the man they killed and Lydon moves into his former captor & newfound accomplice’s apartment on his own free will, nagging him as a kind of spiritually corrupt conscience. The film takes on a tense, slowly ratcheted form of psychological torment from there as the weight of the crime the two committed together and the true identity of the (would-be titular) cop killer eventually driving the whole thing home for an inevitably tragic conclusion.
Corrupt Lieutenant is most notable for the authenticity of its violence & grime. Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten, is reported to have provided his own wardrobe for the picture, which shows in his convincingly ratty, 80s punk appearance. When Keitel’s corrupt lieutenant goes on a bender and starts bonding with the gross little bugger in the most unlikely of unions, the grotesqueness of their collective downfall looks & feels legitimate, an effect that’s only amplified by the VHS-quality imagery of a shitty bootleg DVD transfer. Similarly, Keitel’s physical violence laid upon Rotten’s scrawny shoulders is a convincing kind of rough-housing and it’s occasionally tempting to worry about the little shit’s physical wellbeing. Instead of reading the punk’s rights, Keitel’s more prone to shout, “Shut the fuck up!” and thrash him around the interrogation room. I’m not convinced the film has anything more to say beyond a Cops Can Be Violent Criminals Too cliché, but the way Rotten worms that idea into Keitel’s head in the back half and the way Beetlejuice/Mars Attack actress Silvia Sidney posits that, “The police create disorder, not order. They inspire us to commit crimes so that we can be punished for them,” makes the idea interesting and more than a little bit slimy. There’s even a hint that Rotten’s confessed cop killer gets a sexual satisfaction out of having Keitel’s slap him around, which is then backed up by the S&M collages plastered on his bedroom walls.
I’m not exactly sure what I expected out of Corrupt Lieutenant/Copkiller/The Order of Death/Corrupt when I popped it in the DVD player, but the sleazy Italian cop thriller I got was a surprisingly entertaining watch. That could maybe be chalked up to the low expectations set by its laughably bad cover art, but I think anyone with a little appreciation for giallo or the post-Friedkin crooked cop thrillers of the 70s & 80s would be able to get on board with it as a minor entertainment. Funnily enough, just about the only scenario in which I wouldn’t recommend the film is if someone were specifically looking for a work similar to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Corrupt Lieutenant has even less to do with that work than Herzog’s “spiritual sequel,” which was mostly about, I don’t know, iguanas & Nic Cage freakouts. Much like the cover art for my DVD copy of the film, that little bit of revisionist rebranding was amusingly brash & ill-considered.