Bringing Out the Dead
Release year: 1999 • Posted October 13, 2013
“People come up to me and say, ‘You know, if you stopped smoking, you’d get your sense of smell back.’ I live in New York City, I don’t want my sense of smell back. ‘Is that urine? [Sniffs] I think I smell a dead fella! Where’s that coming fr— Look honey, a dead fella! I found him, thank God I quit smoking, I can find dead fellas in puddles of urine. I love living in New York.’”
This movie is not good, but it is fascinating. Not that it has any right to be fascinating. That only happened by chance.
When I was a kid, my father owned a shirt that terrified me. Every time he wore it I felt deeply uneasy. I’m pretty sure it made me cry once. My mother, much to my father’s dismay, eventually badgered him into throwing it away. The shirt was jet black with a burning tenement in the background and a flaming skull flying towards the foreground. Under that, in a bloody font, it said: “Brooklyn, where the weak are killed and eaten.”
The way people feel about Detroit today—the despair, the violence, the unemployment, the ruin of something once great—is how people felt about New York City between about 1985 and 1995. It was the kind of city where violence, hookers, and triple-X shows lined Times Square. A city run by Ed Koch. A city that pushed Alan Moore to be honest and Keith Haring to be hopeful. A city that inspired a show like Law and Order, because shit like that happened. The city was a beast. If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.
In his photo set titled “New York in the 80s,” amateur photographer and lawyer Steven Siegel notes, “When young people today look at my shots from the 1980s, they are aghast. To them, New York of the 1980s is almost unrecognizable. And they are right.” Those people lucky enough to have visited New York before Giuliani have all earned a special merit badge. It was truly something else—raw and authentic, mean and fierce. There are people who remember New York this way and are so wistfully in love with that city that it drives them to create art.
Enter Martin Scorsese.
In Bringing Out the Dead we see the high tide of gritty, fend-for-yourself New York. We see the despair that threatened to flood the city and send the rats crawling out of the sewers to feed on those who couldn’t make it there. We see a city where, still, the weak were killed and eaten.
It is in the grip of this ferity that we find Nicolas Cage, a weary ambulance driver unable to cope with the dregs of the city he professionally wades through, pulling live bodies out of the mire and reviving them only to rediscover that the next night, they are once again floating amid the human debris.
Patricia Arquette, who mostly succeeds in her attempts to ruin this movie, says “you have to be strong to survive in this city.” She’s right, and Cage’s character fails that test. So does Cage himself. I’ve seen Nic do batshit crazy. I’ve seen Nic do nervous breakdown. I’ve seen it. Lord. But here he doesn’t deliver like I know he can. Maybe Scorsese was holding him back to restore some balance? It didn’t work.
The movie wants to be Fear and Loathing, tries so hard to be Fear and Loathing, but it isn’t. It’s mostly insanity that has significant moments that pull you out of the action. Namely, the EMS dispatcher either Queen Latifah or Scorsese himself. John Goodman is always watchable but he’s gone too soon, and though Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore were good tries, they simply couldn’t balance the nutty unhinged routine that Cage devolves into. The movie is a train wreck with little discernible point, no glimmers of hope, and a soundtrack that is just all over the fucking map. At best, it’s “meh.”
But it is worth watching just to see Hell’s Kitchen earn its namesake. And to see the kind of New York that Scorsese saw when he made Goodfellas, or shit, even Gangs of New York. It’s a New York that doesn’t exist anymore. Giuliani filled some potholes and evicted some strippers. Broadway became subsumed by Disney. Just ask any fireman about Hell’s Kitchen—they’ll remember the before and after. The moment when, instead of pitying the guy lying in the gutter, you choose to reach down and help him. In so many ways that’s better.
It’s a kinder, tamer New York now. The circus has moved on to Paris, Berlin, Dubai. Still, with a well tuned set of ears, you can hear the madness echoing across the cement, barreling down the intersections, hollow yet present, like the abrupt roar of a lion who forgets he’s in a zoo. It’s a city that isn’t ready to admit it’s living in the shadows of two buildings that no longer exist.
- Nic Cage’s acting?
- Did his performance make the movie worse?
- Not specifically, no