MRR Review: "The Bag Man"
on 2014-03-14 16:30
Length: 108 minutes
Release Date: February 28, 2014
Directed by: David Grovic
Genre: Crime / Drama / Thriller
An isolated, somewhat dilapidated hotel has been the backdrop for such thrillers as "Psycho" and "The Shining," and David Grovic's "The Bag Man" is no different. Casting Robert De Niro and John Cusack in his debut entry into the film noir market, Grovic has pulled off a coup with this sadistic, pulpy affair that has shades of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and other masters of the genre.
The story begins when Dragna (De Niro) employs Jack (Cusack) to go and fetch a black satchel, ordering him not to open it. Jack is to go wait at a remote motel and wait for instructions in (where else?) Room 13. As one might expect, the plot turns around a number of obstacles that show up, not least a group of cops on the take and some other less-than-desirable residents of the hotel. Luckily, Jack finds Rivka (Rebecca da Costa), a hooker/femme fatale who, true to the noir form, is either more or less than she purports to be. Even as the attacks on Jack become more and more desperate and the number of the dead grows, his mission's real nature finally becomes obvious.
The strength of the film noir genre comes from its willingness to give an unvarnished look at the darkest side of human nature and from the writer's ability to instill plot twists at exactly the right moment (or the wrong one, depending on your perspective). The only complaint about the plot is the amount of gratuitous violence toward women, but that appears to be one of the facts of the film noir genre. When De Niro's character brutalizes his daughter's face for the offense of accidentally losing some of his money through a clerical error, he then blithely tosses a card to her with the phone number of a local plastic surgeon. It is this cruelty that keeps this film from succeeding to a greater degree.
Both de Niro and Cusack make the most of their scenes in the film. Cusack remains one of the more subtle character actors in this generation, and de Niro pulls off what is little more than a memorable cameo, spouting lines from Sun Tzu and Hermann Hesse to show his own genius. However, his quotations are just a patina hiding a dangerous sociopath who has turned currency speculation into an art form. Da Costa is no Kim Basinger (see "L.A. Confidential" for one of the finer femme fatale performances in the past 20 years), but her performance exceeds those of Megan Fox ("Jennifer's Body") and Rose McGowan ("Jawbreaker") among recent films. Her skulking about in a red gown and her penchant for just missing out on all sorts of awful torture set the scene for her to take charge of things when the plot accelerates.
The cinematography of this film is masterful. The atmosphere is predictably dark, often soaked by rain. However, it goes well beyond the realm of cliché. The score, by Edward Rogers and Tony Morales, bestows a haunting aura on the film that the plot simply would not endow on its own. As the film develops, the suspense around the bag reminds viewers of the drama about Pandora's box in "Kiss Me Deadly," which turns out to contain enough radiation to bring about an apocalyptic ending.
Ultimately, there are two forces that carry this movie successfully. One is the effective creation of an atmosphere of suspense. The other is the big-chested bonhomie that comes from de Niro's character. While his character exudes cruelty, he does so in a way that brings an ironic sort of fun to the whole enterprise. This is not the heavy-handed moralizing about a wasted life that drives the "Saw" franchise. Instead, this is a slightly heavier version of Jack Nicholson's ingenious portrayal of The Joker in the 1989 rendition of "Batman." Without the cheese that being a comic book villain allows, Dragna nonetheless spins a web of mental games that keeps everyone guessing until the very last.
For fans of the B-movie noir genre, "The Bag Man" is an entertaining entry. The fortunate casting helps director Grovic get the most out of each role – not least the sinister motel manager, Ned (Crispin Glover), who needs that wheelchair a lot less than the audience thinks. The highest praise that a director can receive for a movie of this type is that the actors were able to transform the roles into their own unique creations. De Niro and Cusack certainly do that and much more.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5