When it was announced that Martin Scorsese’s new film would be a Paul Schrader scripted tale of an unhinged man prowling the nighttime streets of New York City in an ambulance, it was easy to quickly dismiss his latest effort as “Ambulance Driver”. But such a dismissal turns out to be unfair, for, while not equal to Taxi Driver or the other great films under Scorsese’s belt, Bringing Out the Dead has some strong points and is truly a story of its own.
Nicolas Cage stars as Frank, a paramedic who’s slowly being driven insane by the pressures of his job. Five years ago, he became a paramedic to do some good…to help people. Now, he can barely hold on to himself. He finds himself haunted by the spirits of those he wasn’t able to save, in particular, a young asthmatic girl named Rose (Cynthia Roman), who choked to death right before his eyes.
His cohorts on the job aren’t much help. Larry (John Goodman) distances himself with ruminations about food. Marcus (Ving Rhames) takes comfort in the words of Jesus. Walls (Tom Sizemore) is a complete psychopath, in search of blood and violence.
The hope of salvation appears when Frank meets Mary (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of a heart attack victim he’s called to rescue. Even through the pain, grief and agony, Frank senses a connection with her. Can Frank find in her the meaning he’s been searching for…or is he simply trying to make any connections while at wits end?
Bringing Out the Dead hardly represents a change of pace for Scorsese, who’s led us on a personal tour of the New York City streets several times before. However there is much more of a spiritual aspect to this film than his previous films of NYC. Frank is a healer who wants to do good; he needs to do good. But the seeming randomness of his job causes a deep spiritual crisis, which Nicolas Cage aptly portrays with a truly haunting performance.
Cage’s performances usually run at two speeds: somber (ala Leaving Las Vegas) or energetically wacky (ala Snake Eyes). Bringing Out the Dead gives him a chance to express both styles, and in a way that is never discordant.
However, though Cage delivers a standout performance, the rest of the film fails to keep pace. Arquette is surprisingly distant as a pseudo-romantic lead, and no chemistry between the couple is ever evident onscreen. The three sidekicks (Goodman, Rhames and Sizemore) provide ample comic relief, but their roles aren’t much of a stretch and never seem to amount to much.
Even Scorsese’s direction seems old hat. He’s taken us to visit these streets many times before, and we learn nothing new on this latest trip. Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Joe Connelly’s novel has quite a few surprises, but the dialogue never reaches the gritty peaks of Taxi Driver or Raging Bull.
Still, even a lesser tour of New York from Martin Scorsese proves to be better than many works of lesser filmmakers. Bringing Out the Dead has its flaws, but is intriguing enough in the end to merit a look.