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Entries in Bag Man/The [2014] (1)

Friday
Mar072014

The Bag Man (2014)

Lynch Mobbed

Looking up the writing credits for The Bag Man, I found something that helped put this whole mess in context: co-writer/director David Grovic, Paul Conway, and James Russo were all inspired by Marie-Louise von Franz's story, "The Cat". I've never read "The Cat", but I was instantly reminded of Stephen King's Cat's Eye--particularly the segment in which Robert Hayes must endure a night of hell for the amusement of a slimy, ruthless crime lord. Like The Bag Man, Cat's Eye featured desperate people doing dangerous things for money, a mysterious satchel, and a lead actor whose face likely induced frequent flashbacks of their better-known (and just plain better) movies.

As with last week's Non-Stop, in which the Liam Neeson from our timeline hopped a trans-dimensional flight to a 90s highjacking picture, The Bag Man finds an alternate-universe version of John Cusack's character from Grosse Pointe Blank fumbling his way around a seedy motel on the outskirts of Twin Peaks. Cusack plays Jack, a World-weary Hit ManTM with Nothing to LoseTM, who does the dirty work of an EccentricTM, Omnipotent Mob BossTM1 named Dragna (Robert DeNiro). Jack's latest assignment has him checking into room 1408 (sorry, room 13) and waiting for Dragna to show up and collect the satchel--which he's been ordered not to look inside, lest he gaze upon Marsellus Wallace's soul.2

Of course, nothing's that simple: the guy who gave Jack the bag tried to kill him--but wound up dead and stuffed in a trunk, instead. And the motel is crawling with weird losers, from Crispin Glover as the EccentricTM, Nosy Front-Desk ClerkTM (whose Southern--I guess--accent must be heard to be believed), to the patriotically bedazzled Israeli hooker (Rebecca Da Costa), to the track-suited Russian midget enforcer (Martin Klebba) and his partner in pimpdom (Kirk "Sticky Fingaz" Jones, whose look has been wholly appropriated from Sam Jackson's Marvel Universe getup). Throw in DeNiro's hilarious Robert Evans visage, and one gets the feeling Grovic raided a Halloween shop on November first, 'cause someone forgot to hire a wardrobe consultant.

The film's lone stand-out is Dominic Purcell who, as the corrupt local sheriff, delivers a performance that is understated, nuanced, and a complete surprise (he also delivers a line about death, at the start of a torture scene, that has no business being in a movie this far beneath it: "Just because it's inevitable, doesn't mean it's imminent."). It's hard to admit, but he does a far better job here than Cusack, whose constant look of fatigue and bewilderment far surpass anything he might consciously be doing with the character. Sadly, he's not in the movie much, which means we must contend with a sleepwalking DeNiro and a fully conscious Da Costa--who do nothing to elevate The Bag Man's mid-90s-direct-to-video-thriller vibe.

It's not fair to blame the actors, though. I place this near-near-miss squarely at the feat of the packed kitchen of screenwriters, who can find so little to do with their handful of locations that much of the movie is a series of trips in and out of identical rooms, as characters go to and from a wooded clearing, and occasionally shoot at each other. There's a car chase, and a forest pursuit, but it's all filler leading up to the Big RevealTM of whatever's in the bag (Hint: remember Cat's Eye?). By the ninetieth time someone asked out loud, "Did you look in the bag?" I almost shut the movie off in protest.3

Look, not every thriller can take the audience zipping through the streets of Paris. But the rules break down like this: in lieu of budgets, go for locations. In lieu of locations, go for dialogue. In lieu of dialogue, go for actors. In lieu of actors, go for a walk and start over. Yeah, I made all those up, but I challenge anyone reading this to defy them.

It's also not a great idea to supplement good writing and ideas for "shock value"--especially when the targets are uniformly women. I don't want to accuse anyone of being a misogynist, but there are two too many scenes whose intent appears to be getting the audience's blood up in less than savory ways. DeNiro repeatedly hits a female underling (Celesta Hodge) in the face, all for the sake of a plastic surgery joke, and the town's crooked cops treat Da Costa's character like a semi-sentient blow-up doll. I don't care who gets what comeuppance in the end; it's ugly and uncool.4

In the end, The Bag Man is little more than a curiosity that, I hope, will be remembered as part of a dark mid-point in Cusack and DeNiro's brilliant careers. Both men are lions who, through bad luck, bad judgment, and/or old-fashioned laziness, have found themselves anxiously killing time in a middle-of-nowhere hotel along the highway of their lives. Here's hoping that a little youthful inspiration comes a-knockin' sooner rather than later.

Okay, it's never established that Dragna's officially connected. But it's a DeNiro villain role, fer chrissakes.

2 Sorry.

As a point of pride, I couldn't allow my spotless "No Walk Outs" record to be tarnished by G-grade DeNiro.

4 And, yes, i find both merit and entertainment in films like A Clockwork Orange, in which women are roughed up and worse. But let's not pretend Grovic and company are operating on the same social-consciousness plane as Kubrick and Burgess, okay?