We gave it a B-
You are forgiven for feeling that importunate sense of deja vu. The tormented man rides the gaudy, neon-smeared streets of New York City, taking as his passengers the ravaged, the desperate, and the hopeless. Teetering on the edge of violence, he fixes his attentions on a young woman who wears her cynicism like a broken wing. In a key scene, he forces his way into the shadowy apartment of the man who is dragging her down to hell and…
Well, he doesn’t pull a Travis Bickle and shoot the place up. In fact, there is no cathartic act of violence to both condemn and redeem Bringing Out the Dead’s protagonist, a burnt-out EMS driver named Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage). Is that because the life of a paramedic is already suffused with quotidian carnage? Or is it because director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader have moved beyond the need for street-corner apocalypse?
After five years on the job, Frank is seeing ghosts — in particular, the spectre of an asthmatic teenage girl he wasn’t able to save. But the phantom that truly haunts Bringing Out the Dead is Taxi Driver, the 1976 howl of urban despair that brought fame to its writer-director duo. A lot of things have changed in 23 years, New York City not least among them. Scorsese is now a revered elder of American cinema, acknowledged as the man who staked out the terrain on which Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, and dozens of others work. Schrader has kept at his fervid Calvinist obsessions as the maker of such art-house faves as Light Sleeper and last year’s Affliction. The two have grown up; they no longer seek to sucker-punch a viewer with tabloid artistry. Instead, they’ve made a case for maturity as an enemy of drama.
Based on Joe Connelly’s 1998 autobiographical novel, Bringing Out the Dead takes place over three nights, during which Frank touches bottom and begins groping his way back toward daylight. He’s still an angel of mercy in his dreams, but in reality, he knows he’s a harbinger of death, and that dissonance has become intolerable. Careening through the skanky streets of Hell’s Kitchen, Frank and his partners pull in drunks and suicidal crazies only to see them spewed back by a medical bureaucracy that has no place for them. They save a heart attack victim and watch him get stashed in a dusty corner of the emergency room for 48 hours. In an especially harrowing scene, they help an immigrant squatter give birth to twins, only one of whom survives; you can see the walls of Frank’s spirit collapse as he holds the stillborn infant, while his colleague (Ving Rhames) exults over the life he has saved. —Bringing Out the Dead says that every night is like this — a wire walk between grace and damnation.
Scorsese films the ambulance runs with brilliant, jittery fury: speeding up the film, streaking the colors, gunning the movie forward with amphetamine bliss. And as always, he uses pop music as a hectoring Greek chorus: When Frank rides with diffident lug Larry (John Goodman), the sickroom blues of Van Morrison’s ”T.B. Sheets” uncoils from the soundtrack; when his partner is the happy, racist psychopath Major Tom (Tom Sizemore), early Clash songs fuel the scenes. The sequences are as electrifying as anything Scorsese has ever filmed.
In the end, though, Bringing Out the Dead belongs more to Paul Schrader. Frank’s search for redemption is an internal one, played out mostly through Cage’s sepulchral voice-overs — a device that only brings out this actor’s sizable pretentiousness — and in his flickering romance with Mary (Patricia Arquette, Cage’s wife), the heart attack victim’s ex-junkie daughter. Whenever these two are on screen together, the film reaches back to an older New York movie tradition of classics like On the Waterfront — but only in a faded, thirdhand way. Elmer Bernstein’s traditional score sighs in the background, Arquette stares at her shoes like a fallen Eva Marie Saint, and the film turns limp and directionless.
The movie gets a temporary boost, though, when Frank goes to rescue Mary from a drug den. As the velvet-toned dealer Cy, the phenomenal New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis is the first voice of reason the hero has heard in months, and so what if the peace he is offering is pharmaceutical and ruinous? That Frank takes him up on the offer, in ways both expected and unexpected, provides Bringing Out the Dead with a satisfying moral complexity, but it’s one that works more in your head than on the screen. Where Travis Bickle once stormed into a pimp’s apartment bearing death, Frank Pierce returns to Cy’s flat to bring him back to life. Somehow, sadly, that makes for a lesser movie. B-