Universal // 2014 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Nazarewycz (Retired) // April 1st, 2014
One Simple Job: Deliver a Bag
My first cinematic introduction to John Cusack was Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing, and the actor has done a lot of work I really like. In fact, I was such of fan that his name would be the one I would offer when asked, "Who would play you in the story of your life?" But as we moved into the 21st century, Cusack's career path became a bumpy one, laden with more misses than hits. He has since become an object of curiosity, an actor with such promise who has yet to fully realize his potential.
Jack (Cusack) is a shady employee of Dragna (Robert De Niro, Goodfellas), an extremely wealthy man whose work is surely criminal, but whose crimes and criminal affiliations remain unknown. Dragna gives Jack a simple job: pick up a bag, take it to a seedy motel, and wait for his boss to pick it up. The one caveat is that Jack cannot look in the bag under any circumstances. Once he arrives at the hotel (a journey fraught with peril in and of itself), Jack is saddled with an unexpected companion in Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa, Freerunner), a prostitute on the run from her crazed pimp. The pair subsequently face a host of challenges in protecting, but not opening said bag.
The premise is an interesting one. Here's an object, now resist curiosity and do not open it...no matter what. This could go for miles as an exercise in psychological character study, and Cusack has the chops to pull it of, but the film ends up being a laborious attempt at a Lynchian neo-noir thriller. Well...it's neo, at least.
Director and co-writer David Grovic (Freerunner), together with writing partner Paul Conway (Bottled Up), adapts The Bag Man from an original screenplay by James Russo (The Box). I have to wonder what the characters in that screenplay were like, because the people in this film are nothing more than two-dimensional constructs defined by personality traits and tics.
Dragna is the erudite criminal. Rivka is the prostitute with the odd accent. Ned (Crispin Glover, Back to the Future) is the weirdo motel manager. Larson (Dominic Purcell, Equilibrium) is the dirty local sheriff. Lizard (Kirk "Sticky Fingaz" Jones, Flight of the Phoenix) is the eyepatched pimp. Guano (Marty Klebba, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) is Lizard's crazy sidekick. This collection of characters are portrayed by performers given absolutely nothing to work with. This forces them into a situation where they aren't really acting so much as they are playing charades, letting us know WHAT they are, not WHO they are. De Niro and Glover are okay. Everyone else is just plain bad, except for Da Costa who is downright dreadful.
Cusack makes you think Jack has a third dimension, because the filmmakers believe they are presenting him as complex. He's corrupt because of his line of work, but noble because he won't open the bag. Jack kills several people to help himself, but keeps the hooker around even though she creates problems for him. These things aren't complex, they're simply conveniently paradoxical, and never supported with any depth. Worse still, Jack makes so many poor decisions we have to wonder how he became so good at his job. Hell, we have to wonder how he's lived as long as he has.
And that's pretty much the film. We don't even see how Jack gets the bag (or the dead body in the trunk of his car). There is no real narrative, simply a series of events strung together to get us from Point A to Point B. Oh, and there's a truckload of misogyny thrown in for good measure. The film's only two female characters -- Rivka and Janet (Celesta Hodge, Cashback), an employee of Dragna's -- are physically abused, but because there is no narrative, the abuse becomes an act of violence against women with no context, carried out as nothing more than cheap shock value.
Presented in 2.40:1/1080p HD widescreen, The Bag Man (Blu-ray) is too good for the film itself. Steve Mason's (Strictly Ballroom) cinematography is quite good in the motel interiors and the motel-specific exteriors, capturing a great noir mood with creative use of colored lighting and sharp shadows. However, the segments where CGI is required (most notably a preposterous fight scene in a moving car) are completely exposed as fake, with visible outlines showing where reality ends and green screen begins. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track does a fine job balancing dialogue and ambient noise with the frequent bursts of gunfire. The only extra included is a 30-minute making-of featurette that includes the standard EPK film clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews, spotlighing information on everything from the actors and their roles, to set construction and storyboarding. Universal also includes an iTunes digital copy and UltraViolet digital copy.
The Bag Man marks yet another Robert De Niro misstep. I'm not about to compare Cusack in his prime to De Niro in his, but it's interesting to see the younger actor on a similar career trajectory as the legend has been of late. If you are a fan of either, you'll watch this one regardless. Anyone else does so at their own peril.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2014
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Digital Copy
* UltraViolet Download
* Official Site
* Facebook Page