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Music

When John Lydon appeared alongside Harvey Keitel in 'Copkiller'

Popular culture is brimming with weird and wonderful instances where a pair of random players are brought together in abnormal ways. Be it Phil Lynott’s friendship with George Best via the late-night bar his mother owned, or the fact that Frank Zappa and Deep Purple are connected by a huge fire at a Swiss Casino, it is these kinds of haphazard instances that make popular culture such an enthralling part of our existence. 

One of the most unexpected occurrences, however, came in 1983. The film Copkiller, which was also released under the titles Corrupt and The Order of Death, is an Italian crime thriller directed by Roberto Faenza. Based on Hugh Fleetwood’s 1977 novel The Order of Death, the film’s screenplay was written by Fleetwood, Faenza and the celebrated screenwriter Ennio de Concini, a brilliant triptych of minds. 

A cult classic, it brought together New York tough guy, Harvey Keitel, and frontman of Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd, John Lydon. Adding to this glamour, the score was composed by Ennio Morricone, and it is one of the finest he ever produced. 

The plot centres around a game of cat-and-mouse involving Keitel’s corrupt NYPD officer Fred O’Connor, and the disturbed young man, Leo Smith. It is set against the backdrop of a series of murders committed by a serial killer targeting the department’s narcotics squad, an intriguing narrative device. What ensues is a chilling game of manipulation, weaving intricate plot points and culminating in an explosive finale. 

Keitel’s portrayal of a corrupt cop has been attributed to the development of his seminal character ‘The Lieutenant’ in 1992’s classic Bad Lieutenant, because of their overarching similarities, with the theme of self-blame permeating both performances. Upon watching Copkiller, you quickly heed that the similarities are uncanny.

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On the other hand, Lydon really shines in the film. Taking his on-stage persona of Johnny Rotten down a dark and twisted path, his portrayal of Leo was akin to the perverse image of him that the media established after the band’s notorious appearance on Today with Bill Grundy in 1976. 

Reflecting on this, Rotten wore his own clothes in the film, giving the character a tangible essence. Violent, cunning and pure evil, it’s strange that Rotten’s performance has been forgotten in the mainstream, as the on-screen relationship between him and Keitel is a strong one. 

Interestingly, Public Image Ltd were supposed to pen the soundtrack for the film, with Lydon working on material with bandmates Keith Levene and Martin Atkins over the phone. The project would eventually be abandoned though, and afterwards, Levene used the unfinished tapes and produced his own mix. They would eventually become the January 1984 compilation Commerical Zone, which was updated to become the band’s fourth album, This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get, which dropped in Summer that year.

Watch the trailer below.