Bringing Out the Dead (R)
Martin Scorsese's latest collaboration with screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ) is a dark ride in an ambulance through the mythical mean streets of Scorsese's past.
Set in Hell's Kitchen, in the pre-law-and-order New York of the early '90s, the film wanders back alleys and tenements, forcing the viewer to trudge along with the cameraman over crack vials, through piles of blowing trash, across passed-out bodies, in a black ballet that is strangely beautiful in its excess.
Unfortunately, for all its visual genius, Bringing Out the Dead is frequently repetitive and feels far longer than it actually is. Nicolas Cage plays Frank, the central character -- a burned-out paramedic who is haunted by the lives he has lost -- with his usual smouldering despair and rage. He's very good, but how many times now have we seen him do the furrowed-brow thing? It's distracting to watch him in this role, because we know exactly how he'll play each scene, even before we've seen it in its entirety. Cage needs a humor-lift -- maybe a reprise role with the Coen Brothers, and Scorsese needs to look harder for a fresh face to portray urban despair.
Frank's sidekicks, fellow ambulance drivers played by John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore, fare better. Each of their characters avoids the emotional turmoil of his job with a distraction: Goodman's Larry dreams about what he's going to eat on his shift; Rhames' Marcus flirts with the dispatcher and uses his role of EMT as a chance to practice his Christian zeal and evangelism; Sizemore's Walls is beyond the pale after years of picking up junkies and alcoholics. Each actor adds flavor to the film, especially Rhames, who transcends Scorsese and Schrader's bleakness with his giddy and utterly cynical performance.
Patricia Arquette is flimsy and dull as Mary, the daughter of a woman Frank defibrilates following a heart attack and barely keeps alive. Frank and Mary keep bumping into each other outside the hospital where her father lies dying, and where Frank's ambulance continues to drop off damaged goods; and in their common burned-out stupor, Frank and Mary reach out to each other.
The film succeeds best when Scorsese cuts loose with the camera, or when he introduces a scene so surreal we are allowed to escape, for a moment, the repetition of the inside-the-ambulance scenes. The best scene in the film occurs in the Oasis, the vinyl-clad apartment of a drug dealer who regularly supplies Mary and who introduces Frank to a hallucinogen. Here, finally, we are allowed a view inside Frank's head, behind his darkly rimmed eyes. In his hallucination, he imagines himself pulling bodies, arms stretched toward him, out of holes in the pavement of the city streets, a stunning vision.
Bringing Out the Dead tries hard to deliver symbols that will stay with us, but Scorsese uses them to the point of distraction. Frank is haunted by the vision of a young 12-year-old girl who died on the sidewalk as the result of an asthma attack, and who he was unable to successfully intubate. Her face appears on every corner, on the bodies of prostitutes and drug dealers, staring at him as if to torture him. By the end of the film, we are numbed by her visage.
Religious symbolism permeates the film, as in the end when Frank collapses onto the bosom of Mary and they are lighted by the rising sun, or when a woman in a tenement named Maria gives birth to twins though her boyfriend insists she is a virgin. We are asked to seek redemption for Frank, and on occasion, he finds it. But Bringing Out the Dead stops short of delivering its message in an original, startling or memorable way. Mainly, it just feels like Martin Scorsese is using his trademark tricks, many of which are truly beautiful to behold, to tell a story that fails to rouse the viewer.