Starring: Nicolas Cage, Rosanna Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Marc Anthony
Rated R for Gritty Violent Content, Drug Use and Language
Few will argue that Martin Scorcese is one of the most talented innovative men to ever get behind a camera. His resume is littered with classics ("Taxi Driver") and near masterpieces ("Goodfellas," "The Departed," "The Wolf of Wall Street"). Sadly, while "Bringing Out the Dead" allows him to show off his skill as a filmmaker, it doesn't make for compelling cinema.
Frank Pierce (Cage) is a paramedic working in New York City. He hates his job (in more than a few scenes, he begs his boss to fire him) because the ghosts of the people he couldn't save are coming back to haunt him...and it's been months since he's saved anyone. He's also embarking on a tentative relationship with Mary Burke (Arquette), the daughter of a man he tried to save.
"Bringing Out the Dead" lacks much of a story, which is okay, since this is a character study. Problem is, the central character isn't interesting. It's not Nicolas Cage's fault, although despite it being the type of strung-out, weird guy that he's so good at playing, it could be argued that he's miscast. Cage gives it his all, though, which is commendable. Less successful is Rosanna Arquette, last year's Oscar-winner for Best Supporting Actress. She's talented, but her range is limited, and this isn't a good role for her (her having been married to Cage at the time of filming may have had something to do with her being cast). Ever reliable character actors John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore play his fellow co-workers while one-time hubby of J. Lo Marc Anthony tries to do some scene stealing as a drug addict.
I have no problem with character studies, even ones that lack plot. The problem here is that the script, by Scorcese's sometime-collaborator Paul Schrader, is bland. The characters are poorly defined and not very interesting, and the philosophical musings that always seem to show up in movies like this are just gobs of verbal diarrhea. The characters (usually Frank) talk a lot, but little of what they say adds up to much.
Scorcese's view of the world has always been dark and violent, and his film does not present a pretty picture of the life of a paramedic. Not only is it physically and emotionally draining, they're a bunch of lunatics and psychos. Not exactly the kind of people you'd want to come save you if your life is in danger. Again, I don't have a problem with this, but I just didn't believe most of it.
Even when he's making a less successful film, Scorcese can always be counted on to do a good job behind the camera. There are some intriguing sequences, such as the fast forwards in the ambulance and the scene where Frank needs constant stimulation to make the ghosts go away. The film also boasts an interesting look (credit goes to cinematographer Robert Richardson). Unfortunately, he's working with a subpar script and ill-chosen leads.
"Bringing Out the Dead" feels less like a film from a master than a talented senior thesis. It allows the director to show his talent and his fearlessness and gives his cast a chance to shine. But there's no life to it.