Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead” starts out so big and so aggressive that you almost want to hide from it. Combative close-ups, cocked and dizzying camera angles, hyperkinetic cutting — it’s everything you expect from Scorsese when he’s in his modern-day storytelling mode, as opposed to the gentle but subtly electrified fable spinning of pictures like the “Kundun” or “The Last Temptation of Christ.” You can’t fault Scorsese’s impulses. He’s chosen a perfectly suitable treatment for his subject. “Bringing Out the Dead,” based on Joe Connelly’s novel about a haunted paramedic working in Hell’s Kitchen, is all about fast-moving ambulances, but it’s also about crises of conscience. It needs to move right along, just to hook onto the beat of night-in-the-city mania and neuroses, just as “Taxi Driver” and “Mean Streets” did.
But “Bringing Out the Dead” is curiously and disappointingly lethargic. When I first saw the trailers for it, my heart beat quicker. Perhaps Scorsese had at last — again — made an urban nighttime parable fueled by pure, brilliant, unfettered insanity. Scorsese is a director I’ll always love. After the staggering unchained beauty of “Kundun” — a picture completely different from anything he’d ever made, not a movie about Buddhism as much as a Buddhist movie — I recognized it was a bad idea to think he could ever be pinned down.
Yet “Bringing Out the Dead” has the feel of a hollow exercise: Nothing about it is particularly unexpected or surprising, despite the fact that it lunges at you every chance it gets. Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is a New York City medic who’s haunted by the ghosts of the people he couldn’t save, particularly that of a young girl named Rose. Her face appears everywhere he looks; her voice speaks to him from bodies that are nothing like hers. His job involves riding around the city on garish, whirlwind, terrifying and exhilarating runs with a rotating cast of partners, all of whom are more numbed to the daily pressures of their job than he is: conscientious, decent Larry (John Goodman); loose-cannon Tom (Tom Sizemore); and, most enjoyable of all, Marcus (Ving Rhames), who has no trouble wielding a hypodermic but would much rather invoke Jesus.
In the line of duty one night, Frank meets Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), whose father has suffered a heart attack. Mary is a former junkie who seems to have just barely pulled her life together. She hasn’t spoken to her father in three years, but she becomes troubled when she realizes he’s so close to death. Frank is just as concerned for her as he is for her father. He begins to fall deeply in love with her, checking up on her at her apartment, inviting her to have a piece of pizza at the hospital with him. He’s as gentle with her a spring lamb, but he’s an exhausted one, all bruised and buffeted.
Rhames gives the single most delightful and energized performance in the movie. His scenes, particularly his sassy flirtation with a honey-voiced dispatcher (no wonder: it’s Queen Latifah) let some much-needed light leak into the picture. Arquette, as usual, is charming, here as the dazed, soft-spoken Mary. She seems to walk around in a haze of confusion half the time, but when she smiles, the air around her seems to clear miraculously. Her scenes with Cage (her husband in real life) have a strange, arrhythmic underwater quality to them that’s vaguely maddening but fascinating at the same time.
And in Cage, Scorsese chose the perfect actor to bring inner turmoil to the surface. The voice-over lines Paul Schrader’s script gives him were made for his eyes, even more so than for his voice: “I’d always had nightmares. But now the ghosts didn’t wait for me to sleep.” Cage delivers those lines so well that you don’t realize they’re stinkers.
In fact, Frank is the character Cage, with those weary, purplish half-moons under his eyes, was born to play — which is perhaps the best reason he doesn’t need to play him. Instead of allowing for the incredible nuance that Cage always brings to his performances, the character of Frank sews it all up for him. You see his spikiness, and his liquid softness, coming from a mile away. But there are those moments that allow Cage to do what he does best. When he’s trying to revive Mary’s father, the man’s family fanned out around him in the living room in frozen semi-circle, he blurts out, “Do you have any music?” Picking up on their numbed confusion — it hadn’t even occurred to him that they’d have no idea what he was talking about — he explains, “I think it helps if you play something he likes.” It may be the movie’s most perfect moment, in the way it underlines how Frank’s job brings him into close contact with both bodies and souls.
“Bringing Out the Dead” is all whirring, blurred energy, especially as shot by Robert Richardson. His darks don’t look menacing but strangely full of life; his whites often glow as if they were surrounded by a miraculous nimbus.
But despite the movie’s heavyweight subject, the narrative seems to have no grounding wires. When Cage and any one of his various partners try to bring a new patient to the emergency room, they’re greeted only by frightening chaos and the bone-deep weariness of the doctors, who practically kill themselves trying to treat the constant stream of ill and injured people. That helps establish the desolation and futility that lie at the core of both the movie and Frank’s heartsickness. But when you think about it, isn’t just trolling the city streets, hoping to save lives but realizing you’re just as likely to lose them, bad enough?
Scorsese layers indignities and ironies with a trowel, especially with Tom Sizemore’s character, a medic who sometimes wants to help people — and sometimes just wants to beat them up. He seems more like a device, a catalyst for abhorrent behavior, than anything. The hospital Frank is affiliated with is called Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy, and inside there’s a statue of her with a neon halo. It’s a welcome touch of wit — and at times “Bringing Out the Dead” is very funny — but it’s also just another one of the elements that make the movie feel weirdly anaesthetized.
But then, there is the music. Scorsese’s soundtracks are almost always a revelation in themselves. He uses pop music better than any other director, not just to set a mood but to wriggle into some previously hidden corner of the story. Against Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” Frank and Larry whiz down the city streets as if they were trying to run down the buzzing neon around them. The desperate persistence of the song suits the action perfectly, but its central line also summarizes the sense of loss Frank has to face every day. Later, Scorsese scores a haunting (and visually gorgeous) death tableau with UB40′s “Red Red Wine,” showing us a scattering of dying tropical fish flip-flopping on a sopping red rug. He shows us a suffering drug dealer, impaled on a spike, taking delight in a “fireworks” display set against the city skyline, as Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” swells up from nowhere. The fireworks aren’t really fireworks at all: A group of policemen are trying to free the man with the help of blowtorches, and what he’s seeing are flying sparks. It’s just one example of Scorsese’s amazing knack for making a frightening or queasy-making moment extraordinary — in this case, extraordinarily beautiful. But it’s a moment that’s also altogether too frustrating. Scorsese gives us a movie filled with music and still, it just doesn’t sing.