Bringing Out the Dead marks the long-awaited reunion of Martin Scorcese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, and the late night weirdos from the streets of New York, a combination that produced one of the defining movies of the 70’s, Taxi Driver. I was looking forward to loving Bringing Out the Dead. Unfortunately, the shadow of Taxi Driver (not to mention movies like Raging Bull and Good Fellas ) is formidable. This movie just can’t seem to escape it.
Nicolas Cage plays Frank Pierce, a paramedic who is having trouble getting over the lives he hasn’t been able to save. He blames himself for the death of a young girl and sees her face on the bodies of bystanders. He hallucinates from lack of sleep and self-medicating. His visions of the city around him are often harrowing and surreal. It’s the best Nicolas Cage has been in a dog’s age, and it was a long time coming. Overall, the acting is strong. Patricia Arquette, as Frank’s ray of light, Mary Burke, is the one exception. Her performance is leaden and tired. For two people who are married, Nicolas and Patricia don’t have much onscreen chemistry.
Ving Rhames is outstanding as one of Pierce’s driving partners over the three days the movie takes place: the manic, bible-thumping Marcus. He nearly steals the movie. John Goodman as Larry, another partner, also turns in a capable performance. He’s afraid of Pierce, but his work ethic overrides all else. Tom Sizemore, as the sociopath paramedic Tom Walls, is convincingly scary. He’s a hair trigger. Bringing Out the Dead makes the most of the strange and disenfranchised characters of Hell’s Kitchen. Marc Anthony plays Noel, an ambulance-riding regular from the neighborhood on a downward spiral.
Beautifully filmed by Robert Richardson, Bringing Out the Dead looks like a hallucination much of the time. The driving scenes are hyperkinetic, sped-up flashes in between the dialogue. It accurately portrays the desperate rush Frank is feeling, speeding from one body to the next, hoping to save a life and turn his luck around. There’s also a crime scene sequence that is gorgeous. It’s alarming, the beauty that Scorcese and his cinematographer can pull out of a blood-drenched apartment.
Many of the dialogue-driven scenes drag on, making the film seem longer than it is. Based on the story by Joe Connelly, Bringing Out the Dead is well-written, particularly some of the narration provided by Cage’s character, but the movie is, to me, more style than substance. However, it’s a must for Scorcese and Cage fans, and the fact that the reunion yielded a film as interesting and visually beautiful as this is a positive sign.
+ David Kern