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BRINGING OUT THE DEAD

by: Michael Dequina

There's an interesting movie about a paramedic struggling to come to grips with a past trauma through a flurry of destructive chemical indulgences, but Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead is not the one I have in mind: it's Scott Ziehl's Broken Vessels, a similarly-themed low-budget indie that received a very limited theatrical run earlier this year. This is not to say that Scorsese's slicker studio effort does not feature its share of virtues--in fact, there are many--but, to use a tired cliché, its whole amounts to less than the sum of its often exceptional parts.

One such part is Nicolas Cage, who plays graveyard shift New York City paramedic Frank Pierce. Having already played a drunk to Oscar-winning effect in Leaving Las Vegas, Cage breaks no new acting ground as Frank gradually falls deeper into booze and other substances to shake off his malaise with the nightly work grind and ease pain over the loss of so many patients, namely that of a young girl named Rose (Cynthia Roman), for whose passing he feels especially responsible. But it's a role he plays well, and he lends a great deal of sympathy to the role even when he's at his most obnoxious.

But this adaptation of the Joe Connelly novel shows Frank mostly being sad and frustrated during three nights of frenzied paramedic activity that Scorsese stages with flashy, frantic energy. While these scenes, punched up with a lot of sped-up motion and other visual tricks, effectively capture the insanity and intensity of the high-wire living, it gets redundant when repeated three times over--especially after it becomes apparent that Frank is paired with paramedic partners in the order of their portrayer's placement in the credits (first John Goodman, then Ving Rhames, then Tom Sizemore).

Despite all the chaos and bleeding bodies, the narrative through-line of Paul Schrader's script is made obvious from the start: Frank must come to grips with losing Rose (whose face in those of every person his ambulance passes by) and accept the reality that he cannot save them all. Leading him to this ultimate realization is dealing with a dying heart attack victim (Cullen Oliver Johnson) kept alive only by the occasional electric shock. There's no suspense or mystery to the tale; in Broken Vessels, the main character's secret--and hence his reasons for a lot of his behavior--is gradually revealed through the course of the film; in Bringing Out the Dead, Frank divulges just about everything in an opening voiceover.

So it's up to the actors to engage the attention, and they're up to the task. All three of Cage's partners hold their own and make their own unique stamp; best is Rhames, who is quite amusing as a medic who preaches the gospel. Two other actors give admirable performances but are hampered in other areas. Patricia Arquette is convincingly pained as Mary, the daughter of the heart attack victim and Frank's eventual object of affection, but she and Cage are another of those real-life married couples who don't exactly ignite onscreen. Salsa sensation and newly-minted pop star Marc Anthony is hits the right notes as crazy street person Noel, but he's less a character than a time filler, asking for water in the hospital, escaping, causing trouble, getting beaten by Sizemore's character, and then repeating the cycle.

It's too many repetitions--drunken drives in the ambulance seen in hyperspeed, the heart attack victim flatlining then getting shocked, Frank seeing Rose's face--that stretches Bringing Out the Dead to its two-hour running time and ultimately beyond complete effectiveness. If the film had been trimmed down, some of the film's dark atmospherics would have undoubtedly been lost, but it would have been a more tightly focused and compelling picture.

RATING: *** (out of *****)

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