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Friday, March 31, 2000

'BRINGING OUT THE DEAD'

The midnight angel of Manhattan


With "Bringing Out the Dead," his 18th feature as a director, Martin Scorsese returns to his most fertile territory, the mean streets of New York City. He also returns to one of his most sympatico collaborators, screenwriter Paul Schrader, who previously penned "Taxi Driver" for the director.

With its ambulance-driver protagonist -- who spends long, sleepless nights cruising the crazed streets of Manhattan and cleaning up its casualties -- there's no doubt that "Dead" will invoke memories of "Taxi Driver." And, given the classic status of that film, it can only come up short. But Scorsese has yet to make a film that isn't worth watching, and "Dead" is certainly no exception, a revved-up ride through urban hell that careens on the brink of the abyss.

Where "Taxi Driver" presented Travis Bickle as an avenging angel of death, smiting the wicked with his .44 Magnum, "Dead" offers an angel of mercy, compassionate paramedic Frank Pierce (Nic Cage), who's ready to help both sinners and saints. But, stuck down in Hell's Kitchen, he's mostly called upon to save the sinners: winos, crack heads and nut cases. Some even taunt him: "Pretty soon you'll be coming for me," yells one pregnant streetwalker.

Set in and around Times Square in the early '90s (before Mayor Giuliani's corporate-sponsored cleanup of this former red-light district) "Dead" captures a period when gun violence, crack and the AIDS epidemic were at their peak, and underfunded city hospitals were overflowing with the uninsured dregs of a Darwinian society.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Joe Connelly, "Dead" captures the soul-numbing reality of dealing, night after night, with death in some of its nastiest forms. It forces us, through Frank's sunken, bloodshot eyes, to ponder the sort of questions that won't let you sleep: Why does a newborn infant die while a suicidal street freak lives?

"Saving someone's life is like falling in love, the best drug," muses Frank, but what to do when everyone is dying on you? Or when the life you're trying to save is a bugged-out junkie swinging a baseball bat at you?

It's a particularly nasty week on the graveyard shift for Frank, as he obsesses on such questions. His partners keep their thoughts focused elsewhere: Larry (John Goodman) stays fixated on food, soul-brother Marcus (Ving Rhames) on picking up his dispatcher (Queen Latifah) and aggro "Major Tom" (Tom Sizemore) on kicking some junkie ass.

Frank also finds himself falling for Mary (Patricia Arquette, in her first role opposite her real-life husband), the daughter of a heart-attack victim he barely managed to revive. Mary, a recovering junkie, has a sad, weary air about her that mirrors Frank's own mood. Haunted by the memory of a young junkie named Rosie who overdosed in his arms, Frank becomes obsessed with making sure Mary will be OK, following her to a drug dealer's pad and joining her in her narcotic haze.

Nearly all the performances are great: Sizemore is all speedy menace with an unnerving 1,000-yard stare, while Ving Rhames remains unflappable with his born-again belief in the Lord's mysterious ways: "You can't change what's out there, only where you're coming from."

Arquette, as always, burns like dry ice, with an enigmatic attraction that's heavier than gravity. It's Cage in the lead role, surprisingly, who leaves something to be desired. His beaten-down, hang-dog look is apropos, but seems too reminiscent of his performance in "Leaving Las Vegas." A bit too much method to his madness, as it were.

Scorsese employs Oliver Stone's fave cinematographer, Robert Richardson, and an explosive rock soundtrack (everything from Van Morrison to The Clash), to create a manic, speedy style that mirrors the paramedics' jagged caffeine-fueled edge, and is a real rush to watch. As Frank slips deeper into sleep deprivation and narcotic stupor, the film takes on a hallucinatory, dreamlike quality, where passersby assume the ghostly face of Rosie, and bodies emerge from the streets.

There are some great moments of macabre humor as well: Ving Rhames has a great, bombastic scene where he revives an overdosed singer in a Goth club, that rivals any of Sam Jackson's rants in "Pulp Fiction." And when a gunshot victim in the back of the ambulance lies screaming "I don't want to die!" bugged-out street person Noel (Marc Anthony) sits next to him, protesting "I want to die!"

"Bringing Out the Dead" is a good film, but not a great one, largely due to its final act, which has a strained turnaround in which Frank participates with his partner Tom in an act of vigilante violence, before suddenly deciding to save the victim instead. Essentially, the film is a series of great vignettes that struggle to coalesce into some sort of overarching theme.

Nevertheless, the film is still an intriguing fusion of Scorsese's religious concerns with self-sacrifice ("Kundun," "The Last Temptation of Christ"), and his fascination with senseless self-destruction ("Raging Bull," "Mean Streets" and his own past cocaine addiction). In every urban film that Scorsese has done so far, his anti-heroes have fallen prey to corruption and their worst impulses; just this once, he's offering a glimmer of hope, that doing the right thing is possible, even in New York.

"Bringing Out the Dead" is playing at Togeki theater in Ginza and other theaters.


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