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Do Not Resuscitate

Nov 21, 1999 (Updated Mar 29, 2000)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Nicholas Cage gives another deeply-felt performance

Cons:Script, directing are aimless

In "Bringing Out the Dead," Martin Scorsese once again walks the mean streets of New York City. This time, however, he’s wandering aimlessly.

Teamed up with favorite collaborator Paul Schrader (who also wrote "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull"), Scorsese paints a grim, harrowing portrait of New York as we go along for a three-day ambulance ride with burned-out paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage). Pierce is one of the worst EMTs you’ll ever meet. Oh, he knows how to save lives all right, but that’s part of the trouble—he’s not so sure he wants to bring patients back from the dead. Maybe the dead are better off dead. That’s what one near-corpse is telling him.

Pierce, haunted by the ghost of a teenage girl he couldn’t save, wants to get out of the meat-wagon business. As he says at one point: "I came to realize that my work was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop." Pierce does everything possible to avoid work—he calls in sick, he begs to be fired, he delays going out on runs in hopes that patients will die before he arrives. But he’s trapped in a limbo of flashing lights and chaotic emergency rooms.

In fact, everyone in this movie seems to be stuck in the same limbo. The inertia starts, I think, with Schrader’s script. This is certainly a deep, thoughtful movie…only trouble is, I didn’t know what Schrader wanted me to think about. Scorsese and Schrader are reaching for literary greatness, but they forget two important things: coherence and entertainment.

Scorsese never makes a dull film. Even when he’s at his worst (here and "Cape Fear"), he makes it hard to tear your eyes from the screen. "Bringing Out the Dead" has a unique style that mimics a caffeinated ride through its Hell’s Kitchen setting. I felt like I was actually in a flashing red light. The cinematography by Robert Richardson glared at me with an intensity that made me squint and shield my eyes.

But style does not a movie make. You need a story to carry you through the cutting-edge images. In "Bringing Out the Dead," there’s no plot to hang your hat on. Pierce wanders aimlessly from one emergency call to the next. Nothing ever seems to build on where he’s already been. It didn’t take me long to realize this was less about Frank saving lives than it was about saving his own. He’s on a spiritual quest, but the script never makes it quite clear what that is. His moral compass needle is spinning, but who knows where it will end up. No one—not the fellow paramedics, not the patients’ families and certainly not Pierce himself—give any clues to where this movie was heading.

There’s religious symbolism all over the place in "Bringing Out the Dead." One call has Pierce assisting in a birth where both young parents claim they’re virgins. The number three is everywhere (the story takes place over three days; there’s three ambulances—Z, Y and X—with three different partners). And, of course, there’s the fact that Pierce constantly raises the dead. But none of these figurative signposts point anywhere.

The cast is no help. John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore are all great actors but as Pierce’s partners they all hit the same tone: a crazed, bellowing nihilism which further confirms the fact that if I ever suffer a heart attack in New York City, I want to be driven across the river to New Jersey. Patricia Arquette as the daughter of a man who has one of those heart attacks (and who is subsequently brought back to half-life by Pierce) gives another in a string of lifeless performances. Here, of course, the dullness of her line reading doesn’t seem too out-of-place.

For the central character, Scorsese couldn’t have picked a better actor than Cage. As he showed in "City of Angels," he’s come a long, long way since his obnoxious days of "Moonstruck" and "Raising Arizona." Cage acts with his eyes. You always feel there’s some dam of grief or joy about to burst inside him. He really put those eyes to good use as the earthbound Seth in "City of Angels." Here, he gives us the flip side of that role—a human who longs to be taken out of hell and back into heaven. Cage works hard at showing us a man haunted by the living and the dead. Unfortunately, he’s stuck in a film that doesn’t quite know how to get him out of that limbo.


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