Bringing Out the Dead
Martin Scorsese's new film "Bringing Out the Dead" is full to overflowing with kinetic energy: undercranked shots of New York's West Side streets as Nicolas Cage's ambulance barrels through; haloed lights of everything from welding torches to emergency flashers; lines of undressed hookers on the sidewalk looking for dates; hopped up music that never stops for breath; death and life and blood and tubes and pain and gallows humor and tears. What is missing is any empathic connection between what's happening on screen and what the audience should feel.
The film is hollow and uninvolving, and the problem lies with two people: The first is screenwriter Paul Schrader, working from Joe Connelly's novel, who has remade his script for "Taxi Driver" by simply looking at the inferno of New York street life from the point of view of a supposed helper instead of the madman. The second is the disastrously miscast Nicolas Cage, who is not for a moment believable as the terminally burnt-out EMT through whose eyes we see this inferno.
The plot of the film, a kind of long night of the living dead, simply follows Cage, as Frank Pierce the EMT assigned to Manhattan's West Side, from Thursday through Sunday, during which he tries to get fired, saves people, drinks on the job, meets Mary (Patricia Arquette), whose father is dying, survives a wreck, and -- in the film's one delicious moment -- plays his part with EMT partner Ving Rhames (in an homage to "Pulp Fiction") as they bring back to life at a dance club a young man who has overdosed on bad heroin, by holding an impromptu revival meeting and crediting God with the miracle.
Schrader has stuffed his script full of overcrowded hospital emergency rooms, brain-damaged patients, uneaten pizzas, and unexamined lives. What he has left out is any real sense of what lies under the surface of any of his people. And Scorsese is so busy making kinetic whoopee out of each sequence that he never lets us in on who these damaged, hurting, frightened beings really are.
Cage here uses essentially the same approach to his role as he did in "Leaving Las Vegas," a film for which he was shockingly overpraised by most critics and for which he was awarded an undeserved Oscar. He is an actor who plays himself as an object, rather than inhabiting a character, and where his roles require a real human being he is an empty shell. His voice is still dull and puerile, and he cannot act with his body. Instead of Cage in this role, for example, picture Al Pacino playing the burnt-out paramedic. Apart from Pacino's richer technique and more varied delivery, what we would get from Pacino in the role is an identification with him, a sense of the human being behind the facade, the transparency that only the finest actors can communicate through the screen to the audience. With Cage, what you see is what you get. Sometimes it's all you need -- vide "Moonstruck" -- but in this film he is a cipher.
Is nothing worthwhile in "Bringing Out the Dead?" Of course not. No Scorsese film is without at least moments of brilliance. The two unseen ambulance dispatchers -- Scorsese himself is one, Queen Latifah is the other -- are always good, playing their lines with wit and invention. Arquette -- though her part is sketchily underwritten -- does her best to find the humanity lurking within. And for a while Scorsese's shots and lighting (Robert Richardson, Oliver Stone's director of photography, is the cinematographer) almost cover the emptiness of the script. But two hours of the same thing is too much even for him.
In Scorsese's career of more than thirty years to date, perhaps only "Raging Bull" will stand as a masterpiece; but what is wonderful about his work is that every film is worth seeing, worth confronting, worth enjoying or getting mad at. We can't ask more of any artist.