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Bringing Out the Dead   C

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 1999
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul Schrader (based on the novel by Joe Connelly)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Marc Anthony.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

These last few years, Nicolas Cage has taken on some bleak roles in some very depressing films. His tortured characters in Leaving Las Vegas, City of Angels, and Eight Millimeter couldn't have been played by any other actor. On Cage's face -- even in his more upbeat roles -- there's always an underlying sense of pain and melancholy, and that's why he's perfect for dark roles like these.

Bringing Out the Dead teams Cage for the first time with director Martin Scorsese. Add in a script by Paul Schrader (who wrote three of Scorsese's best films -- Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ) and a supporting cast that includes Patricia Arquette, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, and John Goodman. You almost can't go wrong with a team like this. So why does Bringing Out the Dead feel so pointless and dull?

This film takes us back to the environment Scorsese knows best -- the mean streets of New York. Cage is an ambulance driver/paramedic named Frank who is teetering on the edge of insanity due to the pressures of his job. Frank tells us that when you save someone's life, it's the best feeling in the world and makes the job worthwhile. But he hasn't saved anyone in quite awhile. This movie is ultimately about Frank's quest for redemption and trying to find sanity in an insane world.

Bringing Out the Dead has echoes of Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Watching Frank drive around New York at night -- steam rising from the streets, the hookers and the homeless at each street corner -- makes one remember DeNiro's Travis Bickle, who was also trying to cope with the madness all around him. But Frank doesn't go on a violent rampage and kill any pimps at the end of Bringing Out the Dead -- in fact, the movie has no neat and tidy resolution at all.

The only time the film really springs to life is in the scenes that are played for dark comedy. When Frank tells a suicidal junkie who he promised to kill to do something, he yells, "If you don't do this, I swear to God, I won't kill you!" The scenes like this have a manic intensity that's almost exhilarating. Scorsese even speeds up the film to add to the delirium, streaking the colors, giving the film life -- something that is sorely missing from other parts of the film. It's also quite funny to watch Frank try desperately to get fired from his job (he comes in late or not at all), but his boss keeps telling him, "I'm sorry, Frank. I'll fire you tomorrow, I promise."

Throughout Brining Out the Dead, Frank is haunted by the vision of Rose, an asthmatic teenage girl who he failed to save a while back. In one of the film's most haunting shots, every person on the street that Frank sees turns to reveal that it's Rose, and she wants to know why he killed her. Despite a few masterful shots like this (including a dream sequence with Frank helping the ghosts of people he failed to save rise from the streets), Bringing Out the Dead ultimately suffers from a lack of focus. Even the "love story" (if you can call it that) between Frank and a lonely woman named Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette) seems silly and undeveloped.

When the credits start rolling after Bringing Out the Dead's final gloomy shot, it feels like Scorsese just ran out of film. The ending is meant, I guess, to make you feel something and to make you think, but Bringing Out the Dead left me feeling... well, nothing.

Review published 05.12.2000.

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