Bringing Out the Dead
1999, R, 120 min. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, Tom Sizemore, Ving Rhames, John Goodman, Marc Anthony, Cliff Curtis.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 29, 1999
Even a miscue from Martin Scorsese is generally far superior to most of his contemporaries' finest hours, and though Bringing Out the Dead is hardly what I'd call a miscue, it's still a marginal cut below his greatest triumphs. But not by too much, I think. Returning to the benighted streets of his beloved New York City, Scorsese's tale, written by Paul Schrader from Joe Connelly's novel, bears inescapable similarities to the director's other New York-by-night opus, Taxi Driver. Both films revolve around hair-trigger loners who prowl the city's foulest backwaters during the night's lowest ebb tide, searching for answers that ultimately may appear as troubling as the questions originally posed. No one gets a freebie in the big, rotten apple, of course, but Scorsese, especially with the verbal fisticuffs of Schrader backing him up, loves to put these dark men through their sorrowful paces. Unlike Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, this film's Frank Pierce, a third-watch EMS paramedic, is seeking redemption, not destruction. In many ways, he's Bickle's mirror image; in fact the two films can be seen as reflections, since numerous scenes and encounters are similar. Over the course of two days and three nights, Pierce -- teamed with a trio of increasingly oddball partners (among them Sizemore's righteous badass Walls, Rhames' Christian warrior Marcus, and Goodman's food-obsessed Larry) -- staggers through the apocalyptic landscape of pre-Giuliani New York, saving those he can and tagging and bagging the rest, with far too much of the latter to suit him. He's at wit's end, and more than that: As played by the manic, gibbering Cage, Frank Pierce is already a few ampoules short of a MediPac. With hideously red-rimmed eyes and surrounding shadows that look as if they penetrate all the way back into his fracturing mindset, he's a human car crash desperately in need of an emotional off-ramp and a spiritual change of oil. Literally haunted by the ghosts of those he failed to save, he slams whiskey in the front seat of the ambulance and rushes about on a mad quest to save everyone, hoping that these ministrations will in turn redeem his battered soul. It's a knockout performance, though Cage, methodically grinning and howling like a banshee, could use some lessons in the art of subtlety. If you hated him in Vampire's Kiss, you'll loathe him here. As the ex-junkie and daughter of one of Frank's cases, Mary (Cage's wife Arquette) nicely underplays her role for the better part of the film. Arquette has always seemed to me to be an actress in search of a style -- up till now she's been the actor's equivalent of Stoned Wheat Thins -- and judging from her performance here she's finally nailing it down. Scorsese and Oliver Stone's longtime cameraman Robert Richardson turns the New York nights into a panoply of hellish, hyper-kinetic horror shows, ratcheting up the violence, music, and woeful fiascoes into a roaring, all-enveloping swirl of bad vibes and worse karma. Frank Pierce doesn't seem to have a chance against a cityscape populated entirely by Travis Bickle's wounded progeny, but then you never know. This is Martin Scorsese, and in the end, it's his town, and his show.