Night of the Living Dead
Meanwhile, though, there's a lot of acting-out to do. Each night's shift brings Frank a different partner, in increasing order of derangement. Thursday is Larry (John Goodman), who just wants to put in his time, eat regularly and move to Long Island. Friday is Marcus (Ving Rhames), a man with joyful passion for the job. He drives an ambulance the way a Pentecostalist preaches, for the same purpose and with the same recklessness. Full-moon Saturday belongs to Tom (Tom Sizemore), a guy who truly enjoys being around blood--and when it doesn't pour on the streets, he'll take the initiative in letting some.
Exposition, development, climax: When a film about suffering and redemption does not merely rely on such a structure but flaunts it before you, the gain ought to be a sense of inevitability. You feel deep forces working through the characters, and their power moves you, too. But Bringing Out the Dead is a film of surfaces. Goodman, an actor who can bring immense gifts to his roles, is used here just for his face and body, as if he were no more than a signboard for the Working Stiff. Rhames looks splendid with a mustache and a wavy wig--he resembles a fleshy, black Clark Gable--but the part would turn into an embarrassment if he didn't take such lip-smacking pleasure in it. The role is a mixture of Soul Daddy and Preacher Man, best suited to a skit on Saturday Night Live. As for Sizemore's Psycho, he does what he can, considering that all he's been asked to do is slaver and pop his eyes.
You might argue that these three figures seem cartoonish because they're not meant to be characters at all, just projections of Frank's inner selves. But then, you'd only be delaying the moment when you'd have to justify Frank.
It's another burnout role for Nicolas Cage, to which he brings his vast repertoire of grimaces and shuffles, as if he were variously impersonating a gargoyle on amphetamines and late Elvis on downers. Cage can be touching in such roles, as he was in Leaving Las Vegas, or wildly funny, as in Face/Off. He has moments of both in Bringing Out the Dead; I'm just not sure that he has many moments as Frank Pierce. He spends most of the movie pushing away as Nicolas Cage, knowing he has to compete for attention against an even more hyperactive performer: Martin Scorsese.
No one else who is alive today, and very few among the dead, can put together a film the way Scorsese does. But, that said, does he remember why he's making the picture? I can remember an Italian-American friend, someone who was not a committed filmoid, carrying on to me for half an hour about the great "documentary" he'd seen, Mean Streets. To this man, Scorsese's bravura revealed truths; it was an expressive power. Now it's power, period. Scorsese dazzles you; he demonstrates, with his left hand, that he would be the best director E.R. ever had; he even rises to the delirium of those fireworks on the balcony. And he tosses away all this stuff about vagabonds and junkies and deeply bruised women and men who can't sleep.
In the real New York, these people have already been tossed away. They don't need to have it done again in a movie--especially one that pretends, in its off moments, to care about them.