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Overall Rating

Awesome: 31.4%
Worth A Look: 18.18%
Pretty Bad: 9.09%
Total Crap: 7.44%

10 reviews, 61 user ratings

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Bringing Out the Dead
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Scorsese needs a script infusion, stat."
3 stars

Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), the frazzled city paramedic at the center of 'Bringing Out the Dead,' appears before us as a kind of bleary-eyed Charon -- a ferryman transporting lost souls from one end of Hell (dirty streets, crackhouses) to another (a hectic hospital with no beds to spare).

Frank's job is complicated by the fact that this isn't just New York City; it's Martin Scorsese's New York City, a hostile enchanted forest inhabited by wackos, killers, whores, addicts, and, every now and then, an actual normal person -- as endangered a species here as the spotted owl.

Scorsese, renowned for his definitive New York portraits (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas), is solidly in his element. He rarely puts a foot wrong here, and he goes into Bringing Out the Dead with a restless eye and a playful spirit. Visually, this is unquestionably the work of the Master -- a speed-demon action painting of paranoia, guilt, adrenaline -- but is it a masterpiece? Sadly, painfully, I have to say no. Watching it, you feel like a cardiac-arrest patient, with Scorsese working on you with a defibrillator: jolt, lull, jolt, lull -- he keeps pumping you full of electricity, and then he keeps losing you.

This may be due to Joe Connelly's source novel (which I haven't read), or it could be due to screenwriter Paul Schrader's workmanlike adaptation. The reunion of Scorsese and Schrader on the insane streets of New York promised something on the level of their celebrated collaboration Taxi Driver. But that film emerged whole and bleeding from Schrader's fractured psyche, whereas here you don't feel much connection between Schrader and the material. He understands exhaustion, endless nights, obsessional guilt and shame, but he covered that in Taxi Driver and several other movies. Come to think of it, so has Scorsese.

Central to Frank's torment is the ghost of a teenage girl, an asthmatic he failed to save, who has been haunting him ever since, in his dreams and now in waking life. She keeps turning up, and after a while she seems less like an embodiment of guilt than like a fancy literary device, a suggestion of the spiritual among the physical grime and rot of the city. We never quite understand why Frank is hung up on this particular girl; if he'd been emboldened by recent successes and let his cockiness lead to negligence that resulted in the girl's death, we'd go along with it, but it's hard to know why he's plagued by this one failure and not others as well.

Another device that seems intended to work better than it does: a holy-fool addict (Marc Anthony), a dreadlocked, crazy-eyed patient who turns up at least as often as the guilt-inducing ghost. I suppose he's meant to stand for the unsaved lost souls we've all turned our backs on. But he's generally irritating to the point where you wish Frank would turn his back on him, too. I would rather have seen more of Cy, a seductively mellow drug dealer played with smooth precision by Cliff Curtis, and there are some amusing brief characterizations: a barking supervisor who refuses to fire Frank; a grim security guard posted outside the hospital entrance; a cynical doctor who keeps telling repeat patients things like "Why should we help you? You're just gonna leave here and get drunk again"; sarcastic dispatchers voiced by Queen Latifah and Scorsese himself (in his usual rapid-fire mode, exhorting Frank to get going -- it's almost as if you're hearing Scorsese telling his own movie to go faster).

Scorsese does his level best with the material; he cranks up the volume, sends his camera into warp speed, and composes a mood poem on the life of a paramedic. He pushes his actors to extremes, getting some wildly funny bursts of madness from Nicolas Cage, indulging guest loonies like food-obsessed Larry (John Goodman), impromptu preacher Marcus (Ving Rhames), and borderline psycho Major Tom (Tom Sizemore, easily and hilariously stealing his scenes), all of whom serve as Frank's ambulance partners during a long weekend. But whenever Scorsese builds momentum, a scene comes up featuring Patricia Arquette as the morose daughter of a cardiac-arrest patient Frank has saved, and the movie slams on the brakes -- we jerk forward and wait impatiently for the Arquette scenes to be over.

Perhaps Scorsese felt we needed the becalmed scenes of tentative romance between Frank and the daughter (Cage and Arquette may have fantastic chemistry in real life, but not on the screen) to give us a break from the relentless forward riffing in the ambulance sequences. After all, an entire movie as frenetic as Ray Liotta's cocaine-cranked sequence near the end of GoodFellas would wear us down after about an hour. But really, I wish Scorsese and Schrader had had the courage to dump the romance aspect altogether and stick with Frank's falling apart. However, without this subplot, we would lose the best scene in the movie: Frank's final visit to Arquette's ailing dad, a wordless scene that speaks eloquent volumes.

It's been fascinating to follow Scorsese's explorations over the past decade; he hasn't been content to repeat his gangster successes too much, and even when an experiment doesn't quite come off (The Age of Innocence, for instance, felt only slightly more alive than your average Merchant-Ivory museum piece), one still applauds the effort, enjoys the effortless technique. Scorsese, as he approaches his twilight years, has begun to get into pure cinema in a way that he perhaps couldn't as an angry young man. Many Scorsese fans still haven't seen his previous film, Kundun, and those who did probably didn't care for it -- too slow, too "boring" and uneventful. Yet I thought it was a triumph -- a natural companion to The Last Temptation of Christ, a painterly trance of a movie whose images and pacing were perfectly true to the subject. It had no "story" to speak of, but neither do a lot of classics hailed as pure cinema.

Similarly, Bringing Out the Dead is really more about the marriage of image and sound than about the mundane and scattered plot mechanics that Frank encounters. This time, however, Scorsese is also married to a script that drags him down, keeps him from taking wing as a pure artist. Anyone could have directed the Cage/Arquette scenes; Scorsese just plugs them in there, dutifully. Perhaps he needed a story that roved a little more, like After Hours, which Bringing Out the Dead really resembles more than Taxi Driver. He needed less Patricia Arquette (her sister Rosanna sort of derailed After Hours, too) and more weirdos, more subterranean life, more dark corners to illuminate and explore.

Paradoxically, Bringing Out the Dead would seem more pedestrian if it weren't directed by Scorsese, who at 56 shows no signs of diminishing energy; yet, because it is Scorsese, the pedestrian parts jump out and slap us. We expect more from him, and from Paul Schrader (whose adaptation of Affliction the previous year was a fine and painful piece).

Should we judge this movie against 'Taxi Driver,' or should we judge it against the usual Hollywood tripe? Either way seems unfair. So, judging it as an isolated work: terrific bit of directorial wizardry, but sometimes even Scorsese isn't enough of an alchemist to make gold out of a lump of coal.

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originally posted: 01/26/07 11:33:20
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell bringing out the boredom too it blows 1 stars
10/07/13 David An absolutely wonderful film 5 stars
9/17/13 mr.mike One of Scorcese's lesser films. 3 stars
8/19/09 Jeff Wilder Effective. Not on the level of Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. But still takes a piece out. 4 stars
11/27/08 CTT Not Scorsese's best, but still watchable 4 stars
12/17/05 Jeff Anderson Very disappointing. See Scott Ziehl's brilliant BROKEN VESSELS instead, a MUCH better film! 2 stars
8/23/05 ES Could have been better 3 stars
6/13/05 Agent Sands One of the darkest movies I've ever found funny. Good, riveting stuff from Sir Scorsese. 5 stars
5/25/05 Jake Disappointing effort from Martin Scorsese 3 stars
3/08/05 Mason great remake of Taxi Driver, should have been called Ambulace Driver 4 stars
12/29/04 Steve Newman Could not get into this film - worth a watch only 4 stars
6/27/03 cochese Being a Paramedic, I can say this movie is disturbing- yet it is entertaining. 4 stars
3/03/03 Jack Sommersby Visually interesting but emotionally aloof. Cage is merely adequate. 2 stars
1/13/03 Stevo not one of the better scorceses, but still an engrossing, traumatic, very good movie 4 stars
6/14/02 erick an absolutly amazing fillm 5 stars
4/06/02 Junshi For some reason, all I remember was how much I laughed. 3 stars
3/05/02 natasha an almost religious experience; visually stunning and emotionally wrenching 5 stars
11/21/01 daniboy amazing. even marc anthony. 5 stars
9/05/01 Butterbean Great cinematography, great director, aimless movie 3 stars
8/29/01 Sarah No heros here, just normal ppl trying to get through their day sane 4 stars
7/03/01 J My 1st experience with Scorsese and I wonder if this will be my best. 5 stars
11/23/00 Kimberly Joubert wonderful enlighting scorsese film 4 stars
11/18/00 2sleeepy great sound effects 5 stars
10/02/00 Madoc69 very dark and very good M.S. and Cage at their best 5 stars
9/30/00 Jed Clearly one of the best films of 1999. I hope M.S's other films are this good. 5 stars
8/28/00 Add Very powerful, excellent visuals, great performances but maybe 2 different 4 some people. 4 stars
7/14/00 Bruce Scorsese shows that he still has it. 5 stars
7/02/00 Trina M. Barnard the dumbest movie I've ever saw, turn it off it was so boring. 1 stars
6/29/00 Monday Morning Nic at Nite...or good. Film was pointless though. 3 stars
6/26/00 stranded on the Island Great acting on this one; don't expect typical hollywood (i.e. fluff) though! 5 stars
6/20/00 Ulatekk Two hours of my life I will never get back... 1 stars
6/12/00 Andrew Incredible 5 stars
6/04/00 Dallastech I sucked because of the plot or shall i saw lack of..... 2 stars
5/21/00 Jess Damn good performances and visual stimulation. 4 stars
5/18/00 michael visually stunning, wonderful sound, great script what more do you want?! 5 stars
5/13/00 The Bomb 69 scorsese was all over the place and most of it sucked 2 stars
5/12/00 Overflow Bitch Sensational. Dark yet inspiring. Cage is incredible as usual. 5 stars
4/25/00 John Lyons Absolute waste of Nick Cage! Wasted my money on this one. 1 stars
4/24/00 Belinda I walked out - RUBBISH 1 stars
2/22/00 toneely the worst movie ever..HORRIBLE 1 stars
1/14/00 Matthew Bartley Remove Arquette and it would be damn near perfect. 5 stars
12/11/99 xiong But how to explain Patricia Arquette's career? 4 stars
11/28/99 Chet Patel Great film about a man questioning his life, and what he has accoplished in his job? 4 stars
11/23/99 PJ Visually brilliant and intense. Not his best, but better than most of h'wood's other shit. 5 stars
11/09/99 pipeman Scorsese shoots, he misses. He really fucking misses. Ack! Ptui! 1 stars
11/09/99 Dominique This was more frustrating than entertaining or enlightening. Shame! Shame! Shame! 1 stars
11/06/99 Roman No real plot but had some funny moments 3 stars
11/02/99 shiraz hallucinatory taxi driver on speed; critics love it but watch it only for film class 3 stars
11/02/99 PhilmPhreak It was OK, but no Taxi Driver. 3 stars
11/01/99 john worst movie Ive seen in years 1 stars
10/31/99 C.A.T.M. Maybe it's getting better ratings than it deserves, but it was intense never-the-less. 4 stars
10/29/99 Hojo Premium stuff from Cage, Sizemore, Rhames, & Goodman, & a well-made (if boring) story 4 stars
10/27/99 Mr Showbiz Stunning to look at, but dramatically unfulfilling. 4 stars
10/27/99 Gi & Ty Almost all of the ten people in the theater were sleeping and bored out of their minds 2 stars
10/27/99 Linda W I liked the camera work alot the theme was to schizoid and frantic I needed a valium. 3 stars
10/26/99 TheAngryMob This movie was great!!! 5 stars
10/26/99 Max Lethal Good, but left me feeling like I deserved more... 3 stars
10/25/99 danimal super cool, and good to see M.S. back 5 stars
10/24/99 Janet Hold on, Lady, we go for a ride! Cage at his edginess. 5 stars
10/23/99 gezick style, in the ultimate, never since Taxi Driver have we seen such exquisite fast motion 5 stars
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  22-Oct-1999 (R)


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