Bringing Out the Dead
directed by Martin Scorsese
(Paramount, 1999)

Even the great Martin Scorsese can aim high and, once in a while, produce something that would disappoint even from a lesser director.

Even Nicolas Cage, again playing a character desperate to find a way, any way, to get through harrowing days, can sometimes not be enough to keep an entire film together.

And even a film with inspired moments of gravity and hilarity can go on far, far too long.

In short, Bringing Out the Dead is no Taxi Driver, and Cage's Frank Pierce is no Travis Bickle.

It's not for lack of trying.

Cage is wonderful as burned-out paramedic Pierce, who's haunted by a young girl, Rose, who died in his care, and whose recent track record on the job is keeping the Grim Reaper busy. Bringing Out the Dead follows Pierce through 48 hours of nonstop New York City rescues, conflicts and relationships.

One of Pierce's stops is for a man whose heart has stopped, and whom Pierce and partner Larry (John Goodman) resuscitate. The man's daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette, in an uninspired appearance), who's been estranged from her family, now takes over her father's caretaker role.

She's a troubled woman, and Pierce finds a recognizable link between her and his own tortures. If he can save her, like he could not save young Rose, then perhaps he can save himself.

It's that obvious -- and Scorsese's decision to keep superimposing Rose's face on Mary's features, on the faces of passersby, hammers that point home with a lack of subtlety that, after 90 minutes, is wearying.

Much more interesting are Pierce's interactions with his colleagues. Goodman is pretty good as Larry, who compartmentalizes the horrors he sees and aims to make captain someday. Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan, Wyatt Earp) is an armed forces veteran maniac who deals with his demons by beating up homeless people and provoking attacks -- again, not exactly anything new.

Ving Rhames stands out as Marcus, a holy roller who likes spreading his love around and who tries, good-naturedly, to charm a dispatcher into going out with him again by playing hard to get over the radio. The scene where they revive an OD'd clubber while Marcus calls down the saving powers is a standout.

But there's little thread to pull you in, to make you care if Pierce quits his job or sticks with it, to care if he and Mary manage to pull through. And if you're going to have a movie as dark as Bringing Out the Dead, you'd better have characters who are strongly enough drawn that you want to know what happens .

I've been told the novel on which Bringing Out the Dead is based, by former paramedic Joe Connelly, is stronger than the script Connelly wrote with Paul Schrader (1997's Affliction, and Raging Bull, his 1980 film with Scorsese).

For an idea of the unrelenting stress of a big-city paramedic's job, it may be accurate -- too bad that elusive, compelling spark isn't there.

(Fans of singer Marc Anthony should keep their eyes peeled -- his performance as Noel, his sixth film performance, is strong enough to push his singing to the back burner.)

[ by Jen Kopf ]



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