Does Anyone Remember THE BAG MAN with John Cusack and Robert De Niro? I Do!

David Grovic’s The Bag Man is a delayed entry in the Quentin Tarantino- David Lynch wannabe sweepstakes, when late 1990s filmgoers were bombarded with lousy, self-conscious, pseudohip films filled with violence and pubertal weirdness (see Dark Backward, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Mad Dog Time, Big City Blues, and a lot of others).  Many of The Bag Man’s components are borrowed from superior films, with no fresh take on them. The filmmakers are cracking themselves up telling jokes everyone has already heard.

In its defense, the basic sordid premise (Cusack is hired to deliver a bag without knowing its contents to the sadistic De Niro at a shady motel) did keep my attention until the eventual reveal of the bag’s contents. The reveal wasn’t disastrous, but did echo earlier films everyone reading this has seen. Cusack is fine, Crispin Glover as the motel manager is amusingly weird (if underutilized), and De Niro, apparently bored, acts in broad strokes, with an hyperbolic hairdo and a comical voice compensation for a part that offers him no challenge. Still, he’s De Niro and he’s compelling.

But these virtues don’t overshadow Grovic’s lack of cinematic storytelling sense; he films early scenes  from Cusack’s subjective viewpoint, which makes sense,  but then unystematically cuts  to shots that aren’t from any point of view revealing info that isn’t needed or dramatic.  The staging of violent shenanigans involving a moving car (a key scene) is incomprehensible, and the exaggerated exploits of a black pimp with an eye patch and a Serbian midget are nowhere near as amusing as the generous screentime the filmmaker provides them would indicate.

The film has a curious pedigree.  It is based on a script by James Russo, a longtime character actor who perhaps wrote this largely one-set film as a low-budget project he once hoped to star in.  One could see it done as a play, although the dialogue would have to be overhauled for it to have any theatrical value. The script as it stands is woefully lacking, repeatedly setting up feasibly intriguing situations and then delivering no payoff, starting where Cusack asks De Niro why he, a seemingly overqualified paid killer, is being employed for the simple task of delivering a bag.  De Niro goes into an convoluted effort to slice up the filet mignon, potatoes and broccoli on his plate and discuss them metaphorically to Cusack, only to basically repeat the simple instructions he gave earlier.  If the point is “don’t ask me,” fine, but the scene has no accents or beats to hint at what the filmmakers’ intentions are.  It just provides the viewer no remuneration for time invested.

It is notable that in 2014 a film can still star Academy-Award caliber talent alongside the Producer’s girlfriend.  If that sounds unkind, it is, but first review the poster where Rebecca Da Costa, whose career is a series of negligible straight-to-DVD titles, is given equal weight to the heavy-hitters. Then review the film, where Cusack’s character becomes subordinate to hers, as the climax and resolution revolves around her dilemmas and character arc. Da Costa’s delivery is flat and atonal, while physically she is statuesque but not particularly graceful (was she cast first, and then the tall Cusack recruited?).  No doubt Da Costa is real-world attractive and exotic (Brazillian-born), and likely not the producer’s girfriend, but whatever she has going for her, it doesn’t translate to the screen.  She has no magnetism, and she is outmatched by the professionals around her, playing one “mysterious” note her entire performance, not convincing in her transformations or in the transformations she provokes in Cusack’s aggrieved character.

There is no solace in this.  I look forward to every Cusack and De Niro film, and actually made it to the theatre for this one.  But then, I had won the two tickets (value = $29!!!) via social media, a very 21st century development.  Alas, it was ultimately to see the 21st century’s Vera Hruba Ralston. The Bag Man may be worth an on-demand rental if you are a huge fan of the stars, but keep expectations low, about the film’s quality, and about what’s in the damn bag.

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