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BRINGING OUT THE DEAD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Nicholas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore
Director:  Martin Scorsese
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  2 Trailers, Cast and Crew Interviews
Length:  121 Minutes
Release Date:  May 9, 2000

Film ***1/2

For Bringing Out the Dead, director Martin Scorsese and long-time collaborator screenwriter Paul Schrader returned to the Mean Streets of New York to weave a chaotic horror show of a movie by spending three days in the life of a paramedic on the graveyard shift.  The results are striking, surreal, noisy, and often over the top, but it’s a cacophonic mix that serves the story line well.

Nicholas Cage, in one of his most memorable performances, plays Frank, a man who, by nature of his job, is damned to be directed away from the bright lights and joy of the city and straight into the darkest, most harrowing events that often take place in the shadows and under the surface.  His job is to save lives, but he’s been in a bleak spell of about six months where he hasn’t saved anybody, and instead of healing the dying, he is forced into trying to heal the living left behind.  He is tormented especially by two failures (he considers)…a woman he couldn’t save, and a man he couldn’t let go.

He spends three nights in the dark side of the city, with three different partners, Larry (Goodman), who manages to still think about his next meal despite the carnage he witnesses, Marcus (Rhames), a joyful born again believer who calls on the power of the Lord (sort of) to resurrect an overdosing rock musician, and Tom (Sizemore), who…well, is just plain nuts.  In other words, Frank is going further and further down the rabbit hole each night he takes to the streets.

Cage plays Frank like an almost ghost of a man.  His face is pale, his eyes are sunken from lack of sleep, he is often an unkempt mess.  In a scene that’s as funny as it is touching, he argues with his dispatcher:  “You SWORE you’d fire me if I came in late one more time!”  But the paramedics are understaffed as it is.  Frank will have to be fired some other time.

There is no real plot.  The structure of the film reflects the life of Frank and his job.  There’s no beginning and no end, just one erratic and surreal display of horror after another.  Scorsese, as usual, finds ways to peel back the covers of New York City and expose its dark underbelly for all its worth.  Here, he often uses the ambulance on screen to assault the senses.  It’s loud, fast, with blinding flashing lights…every time it rockets off into the night, we fear it might be bringing poor Frank closer and closer to the edge.

You can’t help but ponder, and admire from a distance, these noble souls whose lives seem to be nothing more than one crisis after another.  They try to save lives, but the fact is, they aren’t usually called to a scene unless the situation is already critical, making virtually every stop an uphill fight.  Frank used to think his job was to save lives.  “Now I’m a grief mop,” he muses soberly.

One of the main strengths of the film is in the performances.  In addition to Cage, Goodman, Rhames and Sizemore are all terrific in their supporting roles, as is Patricia Arquette, the daughter of the man Frank rescues at the beginning of the movie, but questions whether or not keeping the man alive so artificially was actually a good thing.  And for added fun, listen for the voices of Scorsese and Queen Latifah on the dispatch radio.

But the real star of the film is the direction.  Martin Scorsese loves movies, and the joy he takes in making films always shows through, even in a surreal, bleak picture such as this one.  His style of lighting, camera movement, and use of audio always come together to take a scene where it most needs to go, from the most quiet and relaxed settings to the sudden loud, furiously fast, out of control sequences. 

And like most Scorsese films, the true subject is the search for redemption.  Can it be found, and is there such a thing?  Frank, like most of his characters, may never know, but the true revelation is in the quest itself, not in the ultimate success or failure.

Video ****

Paramount offers another outstanding anamorphic transfer to their library of DVD titles here.  This is a film with a wide variety of visuals, from lights to darks, with harsh, cut through lighting in certain scenes to an almost Van Gogh style swallowing of lights by darkness in other.  Multi colored lights cut through various scenes.  All of this is rendered beautifully on this disc, with no noticeable grain or compression, and a surprising ability to keep objects sharply realized from scene to scene.  The print is clean and free from nicks and scratches.  For a film that’s a visual powerhouse of energetic images, you can’t ask for better than what’s offered here.

Audio ***

The Dolby 5.1 mix is quite good, with wide dynamic range and selective use of the .1 speaker, but not as much use of the surrounds as I would have hoped.  When I saw this movie in the theatre, there was a sound problem, so I can’t compare, but I would have imagined a broader range of rear signals than are inherent here.  Which doesn’t keep this from being a good listen, I must add:  the front range of audio is very wide and clear, with an array of chaotic sounds that always seem well rendered and in control, and no problems with dialogue clarity.

Features **

The disc contains two trailers and a short cast and crew interview featurette.

Summary:

Bringing Out the Dead is a fitting entry into an impressive body of work by one of America’s most prolific and important filmmakers.  It’s not one that will appeal to every taste, but I would recommend it for those who appreciate bold, adventurous filmmaking and courageous acting.  On this quality DVD, you can hardly miss.