Movie: Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Why Did I watch this?
You know, it's going to be really sad when HBOMax folds. It's so by leaps and bounds the best streaming service. Anyway, this was heading away come January 1st, it had been on my queue for a while as both a Nic Cage completionist and a Marty Scorcese completionist. And how can you not want to watch this pairing? It's had next to no adoration or acceptance into general canon for some reason, but it's still a rare union of these two giants of contemporary film. I had one more open slot I was saving for something special, and this just fit the bill!
What Did I know ahead of time?
I knew the general just of things. I actually knew quite a bit! I knew it was Scorsese, Cage, late 90s, an unadorned work from both of them. It was about EMT drivers going crazy in guess what - New York City! The windy apple itself. So all this swirled in my mind as I pressed play. What followed was surprising and engaging but not entirely unexpected. Twas a solid viewing experience.
How Was It?
Hey, this movie is pretty great. I don't know why it landed with such a thud. Audiences gave it a C- cinema score and critics hated it upon release. Scorsese and Cage have both stuck by it over the years and it assuredly holds up. It is also probably because I have seen so many terrible, terrible movies this year, but it's refreshing to see such a steady hand behind the camera. Even if it's generally considered a lesser work. Scorsese just Scorseses this and it's great to see.
I was spot on with the plot and the movie doesn't waste any time getting into it. It's a rapid-fire and sincerely brutal look at the world of late night EMT drivers, with Nic Cage perfectly cast as a depressing, alcoholic ambulance driver whose patients keep dying and is literally haunted by their ghosts. Is it a thing that EMT drivers are terrible people? I got Mother, Jugs, and Speed (1976) vibes a little bit. Except this is exceptionally darker and grimier.
These guys are nuts, they drink on the job, crash ambulances and laugh about it, constantly with they were fired or killed, and have a general disdain for the people in tremendous pain that they interact with every night. I suppose you build up a tolerance or numbness to the chaos and have to put up walls to prevent yourself from succumbing to the nihilistic hopelessness. There is some truly diabolical shit in here, too. Mostly Tom Sizemore who literally beats the hell out of a patient he doesn't like. It's insane and terrifying.
Some of that is a product of their environment. This is somehow both a love letter to New York City and also a diatribe about the muck that corrupts and destroys all good souls who enter. You know, like every Scorsese movie. There's not many people who can nail that vibe. He clearly paints a picture of an unforgiving, overloaded, and chaotic city on the brink of collapse, with too many things going on to care about anyone. But he also takes pride in that. It's a dastardly tight rope to walk.
The movie is set primarily at night and just slightly fantastic. Lights race by in a haze and there's all this quick editing, sped up shots, and stationary cameras. Thelma Schoonmaker at her best here. It's constantly raining and scenes are barely lit. There is this pail of dinginess over the whole movie. Scenes in daylight are largely focused on crack dens and other horrific locations. There is a difficulty to do anything. Go upstairs, drive the streets, navigate crowded environments. Most of the victims are homeless or drug addicts. And the characters don't hide their distaste for either while fulfilling their obligations to help save their lives. There's this eternal feeling of just spinning wheels in a stress-filled system until it either collapses or you do.
Add to that Cage's ghost hallucinations and possibly psychic visions. Or he just hasn't slept in days and imagines patients asking him to kill them. Ruh-roh. Cage isn't manic scene chewing here, but he's at his most sleep-deprived and strung out. It's a perfect casting choice because his real talent is that despite all his crazy he has enough charisma and glimmers of honesty to be someone you really want to root for.
I am eternally curious about how this film came about. How did Scorsese and Cage interact? How did that casting happen? What was production like? What strikes me most is context of the late 90s. Scorsese really had an interesting decade. He makes one of the more seminal films of all time in Goodfellas (1990) and follows it up with Cape Fear (1991). Then he cranks out Age of Innocence (1993), which regardless of quality isn't nearly as mainstream. Almost in reaction to that we get Casino (1995) which feels like the third big De Niro / Pesci gangster joint (and it sort of is). But then it's Kundun (1997) and this. It's a man at the top of his game choosing Bringing out the Dead.
Same with Cage. Dude came off an Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas, then the greatest trio of movies ever with The Rock (1996), Face / Off (1997), and Con Air (1997). Then Snake Eyes (1998) and 8mm (1999), we can be forgiven for expecting a very different movie from these two. He was in pure action mode. And BotD has some of those elements. There is a car crash! But it's totally more of a character-driven, almost noir-ish piece about depression, death, and finding hope in hopelessness. It's a mean left swing.
That's why it feels really good to watch these kinds of movies 23 years later with fresh context. So many forgotten gems just came out with the wrong expectation or the wrong marketing and were never able to earn their reappraisal. Now, most films I've watched this year are obscure forgotten relics like Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) despite their novelty, deserve their grave. Others like Gods and Monsters (1998) delightfully got their spotlight at the time but lost their cultural cache. And then there are the few like Bringing out the Dead (1999) that never got their due.
A few more things before we leave you - not only is the context of Scorsese and Cage throwing themselves all in on this one bizarre, I was left looking at what a lot of Scorsese's New Hollywood contemporaries were doing in the late 90s. And every single one of them had their seminal work. Spielberg had Saving Private Ryan (1998), Kubrick had Eyes Wide Shut (1999 - okay, that had and has enough of its detractors, but generally one of his more well known films), George Lucas cranked a little film called Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999), Brian DePalma was doing the aforementioned Snake Eyes and coming off the first Mission: Impossible (1996). David Lynch just did Lost Highway (1997). Milos Foreman did Man on the Moon (1999).
We also had all these new filmmakers throwing down their stamp. The Wachowskis announced their arrival in the upper echelon with The Matrix (1999). We also have seminal work from Sam Mendes, Frank Darabont, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, and M. Night Shyamalan. It's talked about everywhere but 1999 is nuts. It's as if every director of that era threw all of their effort into something and it became super popular.
Except for two. And I think it says a ton about these three. At the peak of his game and bankability Tarantino decided to do Jackie Brown (1997), which is incredible. A truly great movie, many hot takes like to claim it's his best, it's good but it's not. And Marty decided meh, I'm going to make this very personal, small EMT driver movie with the most bankable action star of the era and he's going to play crazy but grounded and it'll be a stealth meditation on depression in the big city. It's why these two just stand out (okay, not trying to say the aforementioned amazing list of directors don't stand out, but they bucked the trend that the trendbuckers were doing).
Not totally in that zone because obviously the film is all about how not-90s it is anymore, but I also thought a lot about Spike Lee's 25th Hour (2002). Let's call that a complicated relationship with New York City as well and a movie seeped in both grime and love. They really are companion pieces and if you're really courageous you can marathon those two.
There's also this truly bizarre triple shot of Patricia Arquette. I didn't know where to talk about it, because I don't think that neither I nor the film knows what it's doing here. It's just a piece of normal conversation and it suddenly drastically breaks the 180 degree rule. It might be one of the weirdest cuts of all time. A rare misfire for Marty and Thelma. I'd love to know what they were thinking or if anyone has any idea. I can't find a clip because it's in such a forgettable scene, like why would you ever post that online. You'll know it when you see it.
Arquette is great, though. Such a sadness and hidden life behind what you think could even turn into a Pixie Dream Girl in the hands of a lesser director. NOPE. Ving Rhames plays really broad and wacky. John Goodman is here as a stabilizer. Michael K. Williams! Cliff Curtis playing again as the most racially ambiguous actor in Hollywood. Marc Anthony great. Cast slaps bruh.
Go watch it! You have like two more weeks! This is a gem.