Posted: 11/07/1999


Bringing Out the Dead


by Del Harvey

Martin Scorcese tries to hustle in another defining film before decade’s end and comes very close to succeeding. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

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Martin Scorcese has made some truly amazing films in his career. His Raging Bull wasconsidered by many to be the defining film of the 80’s, and many of his early works helped to redefine directing style and were very influential for many contemporary directors. For all of his excellent work he has had the occasional misfire. Unfortunately, Bringing Out The Dead is one of these.

There are many shining moments in Scorcese’s inspired attempt to raise the bar once again, but after all is said and done, the film is overlong and ends on a note that is more of a shrug than a statement. Now, that being said, let me also say that this film has more depth, style, and substance than any ten of those being pumped out by the Big Hollywood Machine. Someone should have sat on Mr. Scorcese and Mr. Schrader and said, “Let’s do something about this ending, shall we?”

Nicholas Cage is a burnt out Emergency Medical Services driver in New York City. We follow his life over three critical days as he is dealing with the past few months’ torment by the ghost of a young girl he could not save. The alcohol won’t keep the ghosts away anymore. This plot device is punctuated by the first visit of the first night, when he attempts to save an older man who’s had a seizure. The man’s daughter is Patricia Arquette, and Cage is immediately drawn to her. He takes extra care in attempting to revive her father, and a small miracle seems to occur as the older man is first pronounced dead, then after 10 minutes a pulse returns. Cage will return to the hospital over the course of the three nights, not only to visit Arquette, but to see if the miracle revival of her father is a lasting thing or simply another of life’s letdowns.

Added to this continual thread are several running gags, including a different ambulance partner each night, a neighborhood nutcase whom Cage keeps trying to connect with, and the shift manager for the EMS company who keeps promising to fire Cage tomorrow—just as long as he goes out today because there just aren’t enough warm bodies and, doggonit, he likes Cage. Cage’s partners are played by John Goodman as a food-fixated middle-aged veteran who dreams of running his own ambulance company some day. Ving Rhames proves his superfine talents once again as a contradictory preacher/midnight lover who teases the dispatcher with promises of his special, healing love. The last night is a trip into madness with Tom Sizemore, who is an equally burnt out paramedic who is becoming more and more violent with each night. He also happens to have been Cage’s first partner in this job.

As always with Scorcese, the cinematography is excellent, the techniques seamless. There are moments when the film is sped up, adding to the overall madness suggested by the hard nighttime lighting and sharp glossiness of the scenery. The few daytime shots reminded me of those human dramas so popular during the 60’s, even though those films were shot in gritty black and white. The soundtrack is a nicely proportioned combination of 60’s-thru-80’s tunes. And the acting is all very good. The only problems I had with this film were the length and the abrupt and inconclusive ending.

Frankly, if anything makes you squirm in your seat wondering when they’re going to get to the inevitable conclusion, there is no reason for it. Bringing Out The Dead will make a good watch on cable or video. But I cannot recommend giving up more than two hours of your life in a darkened theatre for this film. All apologies, Mr. Scorcese.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.

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