Fifteen years ago, the idea of Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader reuniting for a character piece about a New York City paramedic created no small amount of excitement. Scorsese was at his best ("best"? Most fun, at any rate) when he delved into the ugly depths of humanity, always finding something worth exploring down in the muck. Everyone got their Taxi Driver comparison points ready and braced themselves for Scorsese's and Schrader's dark, edgy return to the mean streets of Manhattan.
Instead, the team made a sweet, melancholy, human film, one less concerned with depravity and darkness than with grace and salvation. Small surprise that soon after release, 1999’s Bringing Out The Dead was out of theaters, a legitimate box office bomb. It’s fifteen years later, and the passage of time hasn’t given much weight to Scorsese’s film - there’s no blu-ray available, people only seem interested in exploring star Nicolas Cage’s back catalog ironically, and the movie’s home video presence is mostly relegated to budget DVD multi-packs, bundled with Cage’s other Paramount vehicles of that period (Snake Eyes, Face/Off). Hey, not everything belongs in the Criterion Collection, and Lord knows we don't need everything to be declared an instant classic. But Martin Scorsese turns 72 on Monday, and it occurs to me we have absolutely no right taking any of his feature films for granted. Not in the ‘90s, and certainly not today.
1990’s Goodfellas was heralded as a return to greatness for Martin Scorsese. His ‘80s offerings were either woefully underappreciated at the time (The King Of Comedy, After Hours), fretted over as mainstream cash-ins (The Color Of Money) or written off as career suicide (The Last Temptation Of Christ). Clearer heads have since prevailed, and a more accurate perspective has since come to pass on those films. But at the end of that decade, their reception made the crowd-pleasing, angry, immediate Goodfellas seem like an even bigger victory. It was a career-capper; a culmination; his Unforgiven. Take a bow, Marty.
But if Scorsese was now expected to kick back and do a few victory laps, he didn’t get the memo. Instead, the director spent his 50s flexing his clout and his creative muscles, dashing about like a kid in a candy store from flavor to flavor: from pulpy noir (Cape Fear) to Merchant Ivory territory (The Age Of Innocence) to nothing less than a biopic of the Dalai Lama (Kundun). Even though he’d jumped back into mob territory with 1995’s Casino, the announcement of Bringing Out The Dead and his reunion with Schrader - his collaborator on both Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull - was greeted with a fannish sigh of relief. Finally, we movie nerds thought. We’d convinced ourselves we were about to get another iconic Scorsese/Schrader misfit, an edgy protagonist who would make us uncomfortable and exhilarated. Another Jake LaMotta. A successor to Travis Bickle.
Whoops. Bringing Out The Dead's Frank Pierce (Cage) is perhaps second only to Christ himself as Scorsese’s kindest, most conscience-laden protagonist. A good man in a bad situation, Frank is a burned-out paramedic who just wants to save someone's life. He wants this because he’s kind of addicted to it, and it’s been a while since his last fix. Frank's ambulance answers call after call on the graveyard shift, and for the last few months his patients never seem to make it. It’s starting to eat at him, and his guilt and anxiety are starting to manifest as hallucinations. Frank figures he just needs a couple days off, some sleep, and a saved life under his belt to restore his equilibrium. The movie denies him all these things for its running time, spanning three days, and when Frank finally saves a life, he’s left more unsure than ever about his job, his role, and his purpose in the world.
Over three busy overnight shifts, Frank encounters a parade of lost souls, crawling out of the woodwork of a city about to burst with them. But it’s not the bleak, hopeless New York of Taxi Driver. The director gives the streets a high-contrast gloss, and treats every crazy, every undesirable with an easy, familiar affection. Right out of the gate, Bringing Out The Dead sets itself up as a nostalgia piece: though filmed right in the middle of the city’s Disneyfication, a defiant title card at the top of the movie announces: “This film takes place in New York City in the early ‘90s.” (On second thought, I'd have no trouble believing this was actually a request from the 1999 Mayor's Office.)
In interviews for the film, Scorsese expressed excitement over returning to the streets of New York late at night, but he also spent an inordinate amount of time in those interviews explaining how the film had nothing much in common with Taxi Driver. He obviously saw the comparisons coming; Scorsese plays with the expectations a little in the film’s opening shots. The screen fills with a closeup of Frank’ eyes, illuminated by the ambulance lights, not unlike Travis Bickle's eyes scanning the streets at the start of Taxi Driver. There are, if you’re trying to find them, other parallels. People confess murderous thoughts to Travis, or fuck hookers in his cab while he drove. Travis sees people at their lowest, but they’re mostly self-piloted to that low point. Frank has a similar vantage point, but the people who cross his path are usually there due to bad luck, negligence, or time running out. People meet Frank because, sooner or later, everyone meets Frank. But Frank isn’t just privy to the terrible intimacy of his ambulance passengers. He must bear witness to everyone’s suffering, the dying and bereaved alike. People cry in front of him, have mental breakdowns in front of him, pray in front of him. Travis can’t find a way into meaningful connections with people; Frank is constantly thrust into them, given a front-row seat to the defining moments of strangers’ lives, day after day. The crux of the film is how witnessing that much suffering, if you have any conscience at all, can take you down with it.
The sentiment is an unusual fit for the director, and though his manic flourishes pop up from time to time, ultimately Bringing Out The Dead feels, tonally, more in line with Paul Schrader’s solo output like American Gigolo and Light Sleeper - flawed, conflicted protagonists on a collision course with redemption. As a character piece, it’s also about as successful as those films, which is to say your mileage may vary. The episodic script resists forward momentum in a way that doesn’t feel organic to Scorsese. The director's best films have a propulsion, an inevitability to them that’s curiously missing here. Segmenting the film's three nights into Frank's shifts with three different work partners (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore) should keep things moving. But the characters are Broad Paul Schrader Symbols, and it all comes off a little clunky.
Cage is game, but his slip into self-parody had begun at this point, and it’s hard to unring that bell. (In interviews, a diplomatic Scorsese likens Cage to Lon Chaney. He’s not wrong; it’s just that this film might not have needed the equivalent of a rubber-faced silent film star at its center.) Unsurprisingly, Cage is at his best when the film veers into absurd comedy - Frank having an imaginary argument with a patient who keeps flatlining is a highlight. He fares less well in the more somber moments, when the film wears its heart on its sleeve but, Schrader being Schrader, it's hard to know for sure where to lay that blame.
Looking at it today, the film is not entirely successful, but nor is it worth forgetting. It simply is what it is and, maybe more importantly, isn’t what it isn’t. You can put as many Clash songs as you want on the soundtrack, but Bringing Out The Dead isn’t angry Scorsese. It isn't anarchic Scorsese. It’s sad Scorsese. It’s sentimental Scorsese. And that makes it kind of a rare beast indeed. Taxi Driver is a film in combat with New York City; Bringing Out The Dead, like its protagonist, and maybe like its director, longs to save everyone in the city, zipping from (crime) scene to (accident) scene, trying to stop the bleeding here, trying to revive a heartbeat there. Bringing Out The Dead is a film that just wants people to stop dying, if only for a couple days. Perhaps we’re seeing in this outlier of a film a sort of mid-life crisis, a love letter to a city from a director pushing 60, using his gifts to process the sadness of mortality on his own terms. Certainly that’s worth something on its own. A middle chapter in someone’s autobiography might not crackle as much as another chapter. But if you start skipping chapters you won’t get the whole story. As evidenced by The Wolf Of Wall Street, angry Scorsese might be the best Scorsese in a long while, but as I learned with Bringing Out The Dead and Hugo and Shutter Island, I’ll take any Scorsese over no Scorsese.