The director and star of Bad Lieutenant reunite for an even bleaker downward spiral

The director and star of Bad Lieutenant reunite for an even bleaker downward spiral

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Instead of pegging our picks to a new release, we’re running through the best movies of 1993.

Dangerous Game (1993)

About halfway through Dangerous Game, movie director Eddie Israel (Harvey Keitel) shows up at the trailer of his washed-up lead actor, Frank Burns (James Russo). He shoos away Frank’s entourage, and begins lecturing him.  “I need you to dig down into fuckin’ hell,” Eddie says, before adding: “Either do more coke or more booze, or do less.” No half measures, in other words. If you have a drug problem, you use that problem to plumb the depths of despair. If you’re not willing to do that, then quit and feed off of your struggle with addiction.

The scene—conveyed in a single, uncomfortably long take—feels like an artist’s statement. Eddie’s appearance is modeled on Dangerous Game’s director, Abel Ferrara. His name is a play on Ferrara’s own Bible-meets-the-Bronx name, and his wife, Madlyn, is played by Ferrara’s wife Nancy. Eddie, it’s safe to presume, is Ferrara.

Ferrara’s drug problems—alcohol, heroin, cocaine, crack—are the stuff of legend. But though addiction destroyed his personal life, it didn’t keep him from being productive. It was always channeled into his work, producing films that, more often than not, dealt with the terrible things people do to themselves and each other. (Taking his fictional character’s advice, Ferrara has since gone clean and sober, and turned the experience into 2011’s 4:44 Last Day On Earth, a drama about a recovering heroin addict facing the end of the world.)

Dangerous Game is about the production of a psychological drama in which a hard-partying couple is torn apart by the wife’s decision to quit drugs. It may be the most emotionally grueling behind-the-scenes movie ever made. Much of it is shot in long takes marked by a restlessly panning camera. Nearly every scene itches with manic, live-wire energy. The emotional violence—much of it committed against Sarah (Madonna, in her best screen performance), the pop star cast as the wife—is non-stop.

The overwhelming impression left by the movie is that good filmmaking is a dirty business that destroys some part of every person involved. Late in the film, Eddie unwinds by watching Burden Of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo.In hindsight, the reference seems ironic(Ferrara got into a much publicized feud with Werner Herzog when the latter directed a loose remake of Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant), but it also points to one of Dangerous Game’s central questions: Does art excuse the things people put themselves through to make it, or does it just perpetuate a cycle of exploitation and abuse?

Availability: Dangerous Game is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix’s disc delivery service.