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Film review: 'Bringing Out the Dead'

18 October 1999 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

It has been too long since New York ambulance driver Frank Pierce has saved anyone, almost as long as it has been since master filmmaker Martin Scorsese had a bona fide commercial hit. Both are seeking redemption and play God in "Bringing Out the Dead", a startling followup to the excellent, woefully underappreciated "Kundun" but destined to be labeled not a complete return to form by fans of the director's modern classics "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas".

Based on a novel by former Hell's Kitchen paramedic Joe Connelly, this Paramount and Touchstone Pictures co-presentation is probably not headed for a big payday at the boxoffice or with critics, but in the seriousness of its artistic purpose and level of craftsmanship, it easily stands out in the crowd of current releases. "Dead" is dark but not bleak, clever but not jaded, weird but not distastefully so.

Somewhere south of Fincher and east of Tarantino, Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver", "The Last Temptation of Christ") have returned after a notable absence to a grubby urban landscape with a circus of fringe characters.

Not surprisingly, inflation of one's expectations makes the film suffer a little on first viewing, and all of Scorsese's gifts as a filmmaker provide only a few fleeting tears in a very sad milieu.

Another visual feast for Scorsese verging on cinematic brilliance -- with sizzling widescreen cinematography by Robert Richardson ("JFK") -- "Dead" attempts to thrust the viewer into the breaking-down mind and life of Frank (Nicolas Cage) during a weekend of all-night paramedic duties, adventures and life-changing encounters with random victims, ghosts and the spirit of one near-dead stranger. A lot of it works and keeps one glued to the screen, with Cage no disappointment as a soul tortured by the awfulness of his job and thrust into increasingly bizarre scenes of human misery.

Unfolding episodically, with heavy use of narration to illuminate the lead's thoughts, "Dead" early on makes the point that emergency workers are like gods, the difference many times between life and death.

After five years on the job, Frank is haunted by the ghost of a young girl (Cynthia Roman) he could not save, and he begins to see many ghosts and hears voices. He imagines that sometimes the victims don't want to be saved and curse him.

With much black comedy arising from the cynical banter of medics, dispatchers heard over the ambulance radio (including Scorsese for long stretches), cops, nurses, junkies, drunks, gang shooters and whores, "Dead" can't help but be a little eye-opening for those used to "ER." Indeed, the generally manic and chaotic milieu, from the emergency room to the careening ambulances, offers Scorsese many opportunities to amuse and repulse the viewer.

But there's a mission to this movie, and the theme of compassion leads to a powerful, subtly stated epiphany for Frank in a merciful gesture for someone more miserable than himself. It's a moment that makes the movie so much more than a rock-music-fueled bad trip complete with drugs, booze and willful destruction in the name of letting go.

Patricia Arquette (Cage's real-life spouse) makes the most of one of her better roles as the daughter of a man (Cullen Oliver Johnson) who has had a heart attack and continually needs CPR to stay alive. Her entrances into the scenario are not always smooth, but her restrained performance is welcome relief from Cage's male co-stars.

John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore play a succession of partners for Frank during three nights on the job. Each has adapted to the job in his own way, with a tendency toward unpredictable expressions of rage or something resembling religious faith, in the case of Rhames' character. The filmmakers are quick to point out that this story takes place before the arrival of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but that distinction will be lost of most viewers, who will be appalled and entertained by the exaggerated, unorthodox attitudes and techniques of almost all the harried working men and women on screen.

Dante Ferretti's production design and Thelma Schoonmaker's editing are some of their best work, while Elmer Bernstein's understated orchestral score complements a full range of pop tunes, most notably Van Morrison's "T.B. Sheets". Many supporting characters and bit players deserve mention, including Cliff Curtis, Mary Beth Hurt and Marc Anthony.

BRINGING OUT THE DEAD

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures and Touchstone Pictures

present a Scott Rudin-Cappa/De Fina production

Director: Martin Scorsese

Screenwriter: Paul Schrader

Based on the novel by: Joe Connelly

Producers: Scott Rudin, Barbara De Fina

Executive producers: Adam Schroeder and Bruce S. Pustin

Director of photography: Robert Richardson

Production designer: Dante Ferretti

Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker

Costumes: Rita Ryack

Music: Elmer Bernstein

Casting: Ellen Lewis

Color/stereo

Cast:

Frank Pierce: Nicholas Cage

Mary Burke: Patricia Arquette

Larry: John Goodman

Marcus: Ving Rhames

Tom Wolls: Tom Sizemore

Noel: Marc Anthony

Nurse Constance: Mary Beth Hurt

Running time -- 120 minutes

MPAA rating: R

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1 item from 1999


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