Bringing Out the Dead

on October 22, 1999 by Wade Major
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It's hardly surprising that "Bringing Out the Dead," the latest collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, bears more than a passing resemblance to their first collaboration, 1976's classic "Taxi Driver." What is surprising is how little the duo seem to have learned about what made their first pairing work so well.
A graphic, sometimes harrowing and sporadically eccentric ride-along with a New York City paramedic named Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), "Bringing Out the Dead" begins with the same kind of alienated, introspective voice-over as one might expect from Robert DeNiro's similarly four-wheeled nocturnal philosopher Travis Bickle. Constant nightly exposure to the decadence and depravity of a pre-Rudy Giuliani urban jungle riddled with crime, drugs, alcoholism and the stench of death has begun to push Pierce over the proverbial edge, a desperate situation that is only exacerbated by the chaos of blood-spattered emergency rooms and a streak of increasingly imbalanced partners (played sequentially by John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore). Only after meeting Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), the troubled daughter of a heart-attack victim who refuses to die, does Pierce suddenly find reason and cause to try to beat his demons and help her.
The obvious parallels to the DeNiro/Jodie Foster axis in "Taxi Driver" notwithstanding, "Bringing Out the Dead" fails on almost every level at which "Taxi Driver" succeeded. Moreover, it‚s difficult to see why Scorsese and Schrader--both of whom are enjoying healthy careers--would want to tread the same path all over again. Part of the problem lies with the source material, Joe Connelly's episodic novel of the same name, which lacks the focus and psychological depth of Schrader's original "Taxi Driver" script. But even more problematic is the overall lack of focus on the part of the filmmakers, from Scorsese to Schrader to Cage and even Arquette.
To be fair, Scorsese is effective when restraining his proclivity for stylistic overkill, creating a number of genuinely impressive moments during the film's first half. But the moments quickly wane as Scorsese resorts to a wide assortment of adolescent carnival tricks and computer effects to convey Pierce's mental and emotional deterioration. It's a stylistic hodge-podge that is ultimately far more distracting than effective, worsened by a convoluted narrative that substitutes too many recurring weirdos and repetitive themes--Cage being stalked by the ghost of a dead girl, teen heartthrob Marc Anthony as a crazy homeless man, Arquette's father being jolted to life for the fiftieth time--for dramatic substance.
If Scorsese intended to make a film that somehow tied together the worlds of "Taxi Driver" and "After Hours," then he has succeeded brilliantly. But it is his gross misjudgment to believe that those two worlds even belong together in the first place, much less that they could be fused in an entertaining or enlightening way. Even the cast seems unable to reconcile the marriage, with Cage and Arquette both notably off-center, veering from melodrama to camp and back again in a fruitless effort to nail down any kind of character consistency.
Thankfully, the film does manage to produce at least two splendid supporting turns: Ving Rhames as an overzealous, evangelizing paramedic with an overactive sex-drive, and the hypnotically brilliant New Zealander Cliff Curtis ("Three Kings") as an oily neighborhood drug dealer. Whether or not these two gems are enough to salvage the film from itself, however, will depend entirely upon individual viwer stamina. Starring Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore and Marc Anthony. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Paul Schrader. Produced by Scott Rudin and Barbara De Fina. A Paramount release. Drama. Rated R for gritty violent content, drug use and language. Running time 121 min
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