Oh no son, it can always get worse.
Based on the novel by Joe Connelly, Bringing Out the Dead marks the return of Director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, After Hours, Mean Streets) and Screenwriter Paul Schrader (Affliction, The Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull) to the mean streets of New York City. Better than anyone else out there, the two understand that, explored properly, New York is a character unto itself. Explore the city they do, theirs is a New York alive and vibrant, capable of making and breaking spirits without a care or thought.
Easily the best film of 1999 that nobody seemed to see, Bringing Out the Dead is the story of NYC emergency medical technical Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) and his three nights in hell. Once a master of his trade, Pierce has fallen on hard times. Burned out, depressed and lonely, Pierce has not saved a life in months. He exists day to day, praying that each night on the street will be his last. Everywhere he turns he sees the ghosts of people he was not able to save. The most recurring spirit is of a teenage girl named Rose. There is no escape from Rose, her image haunts all his moments both waking and asleep. Desperate for time off, Pierce does everything in his power to get fired. Short staffed and desperate for bodies on the street his supervisor keeps promising to fire him tomorrow. A tomorrow that, of course, will never come.
Each of the three nights in the film has Frank riding with a different person. First up is Frank's current partner, Larry. Larry is just as sick of the streets as Frank but he handles his stress by being obsessed with where and what he is going to eat each night. It is on the first night of the film that he meets a young girl named Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), whose father Frank is attempting to save.
Frank feels an instant connection to Mary and it is that connection to Mary that grows over the next three days, giving Frank a lifeline to hang on to. The second night has Frank riding with Marcus (Ving Rhames), a devout Christian who uses the miracles of science to spread his gospel of faith. The final night of the film, the third, is the night that Frank's spirit begins to rise. His companion that night is Tom Walls (Tom Sizemore). Walls is Frank's former partner and he is a man completely unhinged by the stresses of the job. Always looking for the bloodiest crime scene, if Tom can't find an emergency to his liking he is not opposed to making one of his own.
It is on the third night that Frank realizes that saving a person can come in many different forms and that the only person that ever asked him to carry the guilt of the dead was Frank himself.
Bringing Out the Dead simply put, is a stunning film on many different levels. For Director Scorsese it marks a triumphant return to the milieu which he knows so well, New York City. I found this to be his most assured work since Goodfellas and Bringing Out the Dead stands as a worthy continuation of such "New York" stories as Taxi Driver, After Hours, Mean Streets and Life Lessons. The marvelous thing about Scorsese is that, when on top of his game, he is a fearless filmmaker. Not afraid to go over the top but always brutally honest, he will take whatever steps are needed to drive his point home. Speeding up or slowing the camera down, jump cutting or oversaturated lighting, Wellsian camera angles, Scorsese dips into all of his bag of tricks to highlight mood and build tension. His films pulse with the primal energy of the street and while I respect his efforts on such films as The Age of Innocence and Kundun, those films lack the danger that life in the big city provides.
Scorsese has always had a marvelous eye for casting and in Bringing Out the Dead he has assembled a crackshot group of performers. In the lead Nicolas Cage (8MM, Face/Off, Con Air), has traded in his action cleats of late to offer his best work since his Oscar-winning role in Leaving Las Vagas. As Frank Pierce, a man haunted by the ghosts of past failures, Cage looks like a spirit himself most of the time. Dark circles under his eyes and nervously twitching, Pierce is looking for anyway to ease his pain. Whether trying to get fired or drinking on the job, he just wants the pain of having to always bear witness to stop. Like Scorsese's direction, Cage's performance is fearless. Going farther out than most actors would dare, Cage makes Pierce as real as the streets he lives and works on. Why Cage did not receive Oscar consideration is beyond me and it is one of the great crimes of last year.
As the woman who Frank will find salvation in, Patricia Arquette (Stigmata, Infinity, True Romance), gives what I think is her best work yet. A former drug user trying to stay clean, Arquette's Mary Burke, is honest about not knowing what she wants from life. When she meets Frank the night of her father's heart attack, she is closed up from the guilt of not being able to say good-bye to him after a bitter estrangement that has lasted several years. Letting Pierce in her life slowly, he helps her find a way through her guilt so she to can move on with life. For as much as Cage walks the highwire in his performance, Arquette is quieter and pragmatic. It is a duet in contrasts and it is the film's core.
The primary support of the film comes from its "three wise men." John Goodman (The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Blues Brothers 2000), is a man who dreams of getting out but knows in the back of his mind that he is there forever. His need to know exactly what he is going to eat is the form of structure he needs to survive the chaos of the night.
As Marcus, Ving Rhames (Out of Sight, Entrapment, Pulp Fiction) continues to impress as one of film's most dependable actors. Feeding off Cage's risk taking, Rhames goes farther out on a limb than I have seen him go before. Filled with the power of the Lord, Marcus is a man who knows the world around him and lives life to its fullest. Whether raising the dead through science or crashing his ambulance rushing to call, Marcus understands his lot in life and knows there is no way he will be allowed to do anything else. He is a lifer, pure and simple. Its great work from a masterful actor.
As Pierce's final riding partner, Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan, Heat, Natural Born Killers) plays a man more dangerous than most of the criminals on the street. Equal parts hurricane and child, Sizemore's Tom Walls is a man so filled with rage, a man so obsessed by the street that he is to the point where the only way he can express himself is through violence and mayhem. In Walls, Pierce sees what he may become and it serves as counterpoint to what he ends up by films end.
In addition to great direction and acting, Bringing Out the Dead, has one of Paul Schrader's finest scripts. Constructed almost like a film-noir, with Pierce's voice-over commenting on the action of the film, every character develops naturally and is given their "moment." Dialogue is at times lean and mean but also rises to heights of near poetry. If there has been a more potent director/writer partnership in the latter part the 20th century, I'm not aware of it. Scorsese and Schrader obviously understand each other and Bringing Out the Dead stands as a testament to their combined vision and energy.
Oliver Stone's longtime Director of Cinematography, Robert Richardson provides the films haunting images and Scorsese regular, Editor Thelma Schoonmaker cuts the film to perfection.
As a disc Paramount has the difficult job of rendering a film that employs a wealth of different film techniques. Not the least of which is color tinting and high contrast images, shots that are over exposed, both speeding up and slowing down. On all counts Paramount nails these tricky passages down cold. The print itself is perfect with no dirt or scratches whatsoever. Film grain that is present is natural and part of Scorsese's vision of the film. Black levels are beautifully presented with no bleed or shimmer apparent. Shadow detail is very strong and deep with little or no edge enhancement present. All in all, a superb job.
Bringing Out the Dead also features one of the best 5.1 mixes I have heard. The city and its sounds are presented as a character itself with the surrounds used being both subtle and natural. Elmer Bernstein's score, Scorsese's eclectic song choices and ambient effects are used to build a constant source of movement and tension. Although much of the dialogue is spoken softly, it is always clear and easy to understand. The disc also has a 2.0 Dolby Surround mix. While the 2 channel is good, it does not possess the flexibility of the preferred 5.1. Once more, a very impressive job from Paramount.
On the extras front, the disc has two trailers and a featurette that runs under 10 minutes. A little better than the usual run-of-the-mill backslapping video press packet, the featurette does have some interesting insights and many will feel, is better than nothing at all.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Stop me if this seems like a familiar refrain, but this being a Paramount release, I wanted a lot more in the way of extras. Bringing Out the Dead, while not a film that burned up the box office, is after all a Scorsese film and as such deserves more attention. Watching this movie I could not help but wish for a commentary track. The featurette is nice but at under 10 minutes, it is woefully short. I wanted to see the way Scorsese approaches material like this and try to understand what makes him the director that he is. I would have loved to see the way Schrader works with his frequent partner and how he broke down the original source material for the screen but none of that is here.
As a film, I can understand why some people would not be into what Bringing Out the Dead is saying. It is not happy stuff. If you like your movies loud and with lots of explosions this is not the film for you. Yes, the material is difficult to sometimes watch and it has no easy or pat answers, but in the end, it is about the redemption of a man's spirit and the rebirth of his soul. Issues that I feel resonate louder each passing day.
I was very moved by Bringing Out the Dead and consider it to be one of the best movies of 1999. It is also the strongest work Martin Scorsese has produced in years. It is a daring film, that possesses moments of the darkest humor possible and offers many questions about life and why we do things we do. It offers no easy or safe answers but in the end, I found it to be quite uplifting. It is a film that echoes in the mind's eye long after being watched. It is also a film, I hope, which finds new life in the world of home video. It certainly deserves it. 1999 was a great year for film and Bringing Out the Dead stands with the top of its class.
Paramount has, once again, done spectacular work on the video and audio end but it is the glaring lack of supplemental materials that prevents this disc from getting a perfect score. Still this is a film that I plan on revisiting often and as such I feel it belongs on any serious film collector's shelf.
Bringing Out the Dead is released to work the night shift over and over again. Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader are ordered to be chained at the hip to keep producing great American films. Paramount is released with a warning to jump on the special edition boat…soon!
That's it. Case dismissed.
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