America's overall health care system has been greatly criticized over the last several years with everything from stingy HMOs and insurance red tape to ill-prepared physicians and outrageous hospital fees making the news and/or coming under attack. Upon seeing Martin Scorsese's "Bringing Out the Dead," however, you might be led to believe that the problem starts with the people many patients see first, the emergency medical technicians, you know, the folks in the ambulance.
That's not to say that the acclaimed director's story of several chaotic days in the lives of such folks is an indictment of any sort against their profession. In fact, it's nearly all too apparent that he's attempting to show what a rough and stressful environment in which such people work.
However, the way in which the story is told and unfolds -- as penned by screenwriter Paul Schrader ("Affliction," "Taxi Driver") who adapts Joe Connelly's novel of the same name -- one gets the impression that these stressed, angry and often hesitant to respond professionals are the last people you'd want arriving at an emergency. That only exacerbates the problem of the audience rarely getting the chance to connect emotionally or even viscerally with the characters and thus not really caring about them or their predicaments.
This is despite an initial premise that seems like a cross between "M*A*S*H" and "The Sixth Sense" as filtered through TV's "ER" and Scorsese's own "Taxi Driver." As such, the film's lead character -- played by Nicolas Cage as if in a logical continuation of his role from "City of Angels" as a former angel who formerly hung around hospitals -- is haunted by visions of people, and in particular, one young woman, that he couldn't save in the line of duty.
Despite the unavoidable similarities to the Bruce Willis thriller (where the boy is similarly haunted by dead people), we're still in the "so far, so good" realm. Throw in some chaotic, life on the other side of the ER moments and a talented cast and you've what seems like the makings for an intriguing and potential-filled drama laced with supernatural underpinnings.
Yet the talented Scorsese -- the cinematic visionary responsible for so many acclaimed films such as "Raging Bull," "Mean Streets" and "Goodfellas" -- trips, stumbles and falls with this one. Despite the interesting setup, the story involving both the straight drama and the whole haunting aspect never really develop into much of anything. That, coupled with the audience's lack of any vested interest in any of the characters simply causes the film to flutter about with no great payoff concerning any of the issues it addresses.
As such, and quite unfortunately, the results are rather boring, rarely involve the viewer and occasionally become an annoying mess, with some moments more likely to irritate than enthrall, move or otherwise entertain. That's not to say, however, that the film is devoid of any decent moments. Like many of his other works, Scorsese infuses this release with memorable scenes and a unique visual style, and a fun and inventive use of a wailing harmonica subbing for the sounds of an ambulance's sirens.
Nevertheless, it's the visual part where the seasoned director does most of his stumbling. Although he's clearly not known for his stationary shots, Scorsese's occasional use of sped up film, odd shooting angles and sometimes bizarre editing are incongruous with the rest of the picture. Sure, he's obviously using many of those effects in a symbolic fashion. Still, the fact that they stand out too much like sore thumbs makes them more distracting and singularly intriguing rather than complementary and beneficial to the film as a whole.
Playing the cinematic cousin to Travis Bickle -- the similarly disillusioned New York City cabby played by Robert De Niro in the 1976 film, "Taxi Driver" -- Nicolas Cage ("8MM," "Leaving Las Vegas") gives a solid performance as the burnt-out EMT. Although Cage does a good job showing us his pain (and seems to have a penchant for playing characters "on the edge") we never experience it with him. Thus, while one can admire his acting, the fact that we never connect with his character in anything more than a superficial way detracts from the performance and weakens the film (particularly since he's the focal point around which the rest of the picture revolves).
Less successful is Patricia Arquette ("Stigmata," "Goodbye Lover") as the estranged but still upset daughter of a man Cage's character saves. With a past that's hinted at but never explored to any satisfactory level, and hindered by an otherwise weakly developed character, Arquette can't do much with the role.
Instead, the film's more memorable characters come from those in the supporting roles. As usual, Ving Rhames ("Out of Sight," "Mission: Impossible") delivers an incredibly charismatic and energetic performance as the smooth talking, religious paramedic and clearly gets the film's best scene where he helps "resurrect" a "dead" man.
John Goodman ("The Big Lebowski," "Always"), who always delivers solid supporting performances, is quite good, Tom Sizemore ("Saving Private Ryan," "Heat"), is appropriately and convincingly disturbing as the sociopathic ambulance driver, while hot Latino star and singing sensation Marc Anthony ("Big Night," "The Substitute") delivers a decent performance as the homeless junkie the paramedics repeatedly encounter.
With its mix of drama, edgy humor and pathos, it's easy to see that Scorsese is trying to make a gritty, urban tale reminiscent of "M*A*S*H" where the inner city paramedics perform triage in a different kind of battlefield. While the film occasionally succeeds and has its share of moments -- along with the director's trademark, effective use of a varied soundtrack -- as a whole it's just not as compelling as it wants to be or could have been.
Certainly not horrible, but clearly nowhere in the same league of what Scorsese has delivered in the past, the film may appeal to some critics and the director's diehard fans, but the general public will probably dismiss this effort as easily as they forget an ambulance that's just passed by. "Bringing Out the Dead" rates as just a 4.5 out of 10.