Chris Russo’s unmistakable shouts emanating from the airwaves with a Major League Baseball season in which the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers appear to be the class of the National League: it’s not a description of spring 2022, but rather the scene set in a notorious crime drama that turns 30 this year.
First, some necessary background. Long before becoming a fixture on ESPN’s daytime shout-fests alongside Stephen A. Smith, “Mad Dog” Russo teamed with Mike Francesa to help set the template for the Hot Sports Take genre.
It’s not necessarily correct to label Russo the creator of sports-talk radio. Mike and the Mad Dog debuted in 1988, four years after the launch of The George Michael Sports Machine and four years following Russo’s solo debut. Around the same time, WNBC added Jack Spector’s sports-talk show to the same daily lineup as Don Imus and Howard Stern.
But, while Russo may not have invented the genre, he was inarguably one of its pioneers. Mike and the Mad Dog launched four years prior to ESPN taking the sports-talk concept national in a limited capacity with weekend programming in 1992.
That’s the same year in which Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant screened in theaters – not many theaters, mind you. Bad Lieutenant is among the earliest films to receive the NC-17 rating, which the Motion Picture Association (then the MPAA) adopted in 1990 to replace the old X-rating.
NC-17 was intended to differentiate more adult-oriented films without lumping them into pornography. This video essay takes a look into how the X-rating was co-opted, unintentionally associating legitimate films with adult titles – the former of which includes the atrocious, Roger Ebert-written Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
But while NC-17 ostensibly existed to give genuine filmmaking with more of an edge than your typical R-rated fare, it almost immediately ran into the same difficulties. Blockbuster’s puritanical stance on NC-17, just as the video store’s monopoly was accelerating nationwide, doomed the rating in its infancy.
Plenty of theaters did the same to NC-17 films in general, and Bad Lieutenant specifically. In fact, just two theaters screened the movie upon its 1992 release.
Despite its limitations for theatrical release, Bad Lieutenant doubled its budget at the box office and gained mainstream exposure through regular, late-night airings on premium cable in the ‘90s. I first became aware of the film through the trailers the TV Guide Channel featured over its 24-hour scrolling list. A sample for the Gen Z audience who never experienced the wonder of Prevue/TV Guide Channel:
This was after Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls became the first commercial NC-17 release, so a teenaged me wrongly assumed Bad Lieutenant had a similar tone. In college, I lived a real-life The Onion headline: “Young man regrets convincing friends to watch Bad Lieutenant because of its rating.”
The only trait Bad Lieutenant has in common with the more well-known and commercially successful Showgirls is its rating. While the latter goes into some harsh themes, the flashy cinematography and campy performances of the cast are signature Verhoeven. Bad Lieutenant is signature Ferrera for its gritty look and the relentless feeling of despair the story invokes.
Harvey Keitel stars as an unnamed New York police officer, dug into all manners of corruption but specifically hard-drug use, assigned to investigate the assault of a nun.
Keitel gives a performance that deserved Academy Award consideration, as his life unravels commensurate with the fictitious comeback of the Mets from down 3-0 to the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.
The NLCS is central to the plot, as Keitel’s character has wagered more than he can pay on the Dodgers. Los Angeles acquired Daryl Strawberry the same year Bad Lieutenant was filmed, stealing one of New York’s favorite players of the ‘80s in the Kevin Durant-leaving-the-Thunder move of its time.
As the Dodgers’ commanding lead in the NLCS behind Strawberry begins to slip away, New York hails the Mets’ comeback as a miracle in a thematic parallel to the film’s focus on redemption.
Although Russo years later called the movie “rough” when discussing it with New York Magazine, he’s undeniably important to its progression — so much so that his voice is the first heard as the film begins.
Bad Lieutenant is arguably Ferrara’s most controversial film by virtue of being one of his more accessible, even with the NC-17 rating. Ferrara is a cult-cinema icon for directing grindhouse titles from the ‘80s like Ms. 45 and Fear City, in which touches of the filmmaker’s style for the more widely distributed Bad Lieutenant are evident.
Each of the three can be charitably described as leaving the viewer feeling like they have a fine layer of grime on them upon watching. All three are also set in Manhattan during the days of Old New York.
By 1992, the transformation of Times Square from a hub of the salacious into a corporate-owned tourist trap was underway but not yet complete. Marquees on the sort of grindhouse theaters that screened films like Fear City are visible as Bad Lieutenant’s focal character drives his patrol car while under the influence of assorted drugs and alcohol, his radio blaring both calls of the game and Russo’s analysis.
Russo’s appearance in voice only adds to the New York authenticity — even if it’s a little jarring hearing the same voice willing to earnestly argue Bob Cousy is a better point guard than Chris Paul on ESPN giving sound to one of the more distressing American films ever made.
It wouldn’t be the last time Chris Russo teamed with a foul-mouthed, heroin-abusing antihero in the Mad Dog’s illustrious sports-talk career. One of Artie Lange’s first appearances after detonating a proverbial pipe bomb on the debut of Joe Buck’s short-lived HBO program in 2009 was an equally belligerent call-in to Russo’s solo SiriusXM show.
Between Lange, Francesa, Keitel’s Lieutenant, or Stephen A., no word who the Mad Dog’s most difficult partner was in a fascinating, near-40-year career.
[Photo Credit: ESPN]