Bringing Out the Dead

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore.
MPAA Rating: R for gritty violent content, drug use and language.

Review by Matt Heffernan
October 23, 1999

If you have ready many of my other other reviews, you would know that I'm a big fan of Martin Scorsese. Since the death of Stanley Kubrick, he has been the greatest American director working today. Of course, Kubrick didn't live up to his title with his final work, Eyes Wide Shut, but his previous films certainly made the case. Scorsese started out the 1990's with what will possibly stand as the greatest film of this decade: Goodfellas. Since then, his work has not measured up to that, and despite the merits of Bringing Out the Dead, it does not come close to dethroning his 1990 masterpiece.

Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is a paramedic on the edge. He works all night and drinks all day. In the past year, he has been on a real losing streak: he rarely manages to save any lives. Instead, he is haunted by the ghosts of the people he watched die, including Rose, a girl who died because of a mistake he made. He sees her face everywhere, and hears her voice accusing him of murder. One night, his streak is broken when he miraculously brings a man back to life six minutes after suffering a fatal heart attack. He tries to help out the man's wife, and his troubled daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette).

Frank and Mary cross paths several times while she is visiting her father in the hospital. He is continually "coding" and being revived with a defibrillater. This dubious success does little to ease Frank's suffering, and he continues to ride in the ambulance. He rides with three different people: Larry (John Goodman), Marcus (Ving Rhames), and Tom (Tom Sizemore). Each of these partners provide a different angle on Frank's surreal and tortured life.

This film starts with a card that says that it takes place in New York in the early 90's. This is important because the city that Scorsese brilliantly captured in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver is quickly changing. Here he again shows the gritty underbelly that characterized his early work. Helping him achieve this atmosphere is screenwriter Paul Schrader, who also wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The dialogue is very sharp, and has a dark edge that is often very funny. Cage and the other paramedics share some great scenes that are very stylized and energetic.

A major detractor to this energy is Arquette. Despite being married to Cage in real life, they have virtually no chemistry together on screen. She drags the film down with a lackluster performance, preventing it from achieving the success that Scorsese deserves. Other parts of the film don't quite work out well, but it is still much better than most other films. I admit to holding Scorsese to a high standard, and I don't feel he completely met it this time. It is still very good, and certainly his best since Goodfellas. Cage proves that his role in Leaving Las Vegas was not a fluke, and helps carry this film with another great performance. Rhames also stands out among Goodman and Sizemore as the real highlight of the film.

Scorsese has now developed a reputation of making the best film of a decade at the very beginning (Raging Bull came out in 1980, and proved to be an impossible act to follow). Next year, he has two contenders for the best film of the next decade: Dino (a biopic about Dean Martin starring Tom Hanks) and Gangs of New York (with Leonardo DiCaprio). Hopefully he will continue with his trend and amaze us once again with at least one of those.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at
Bringing Out the Dead (1999) -- VHS
Bringing Out the Dead (1999) -- DVD
Bringing Out the Dead, a novel by Joe Connelly -- Hardcover
Bringing Out the Dead, a novel by Joe Connelly -- Paperback
Bringing Out the Dead, a novel by Joe Connelly -- Audio Cassette (read by Campbell Scott)
Bringing Out the Dead: Music From the Motion Picture -- Compact Disc Home
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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan