In the latest teaming of director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, Bringing Out the Dead, the protagonist, a burnt-out EMS driver named Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), is seeing ghosts – in particular, the spectre of an asthmatic teenage girl he wasn’t able to save. But the phantom that truly haunts ”Bringing Out the Dead” is ”Taxi Driver,” the 1976 howl of urban despair that brought fame to its writer-director duo.
A lot of things have changed in 23 years, New York City not least among them. Scorsese is now a revered elder of American cinema, acknowledged as the man who staked out the terrain on which Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, and dozens of others work. Schrader has kept at his fervid Calvinist obsessions as the maker of such art-house faves as ”Light Sleeper” and last year’s ”Affliction.” The two have grown up; they no longer seek to sucker-punch a viewer with tabloid artistry. Instead, they’ve made a case for maturity as an enemy of drama.
Based on Joe Connelly’s 1998 autobiographical novel, ”Bringing Out the Dead” takes place over three nights, during which Frank touches bottom and begins groping his way back toward daylight. He’s still an angel of mercy in his dreams, but in reality, he knows he’s a harbinger of death, and that dissonance has become intolerable.
Scorsese films the ambulance runs with brilliant, jittery fury: speeding up the film, streaking the colors, gunning the movie forward with amphetamine bliss. And as always, he uses pop music as a hectoring Greek chorus: When Frank rides with diffident lug Larry (John Goodman), the sickroom blues of Van Morrison’s ”T.B. Sheets” uncoils from the soundtrack; when his partner is the happy, racist psychopath Major Tom (Tom Sizemore), early Clash songs fuel the scenes. The sequences are as electrifying as anything Scorsese has ever filmed.
In the end, though, ”Bringing Out the Dead” belongs more to Paul Schrader. Frank’s search for redemption is an internal one, played out mostly through Cage’s sepulchral voice-overs – a device that only brings out this actor’s sizable pretentiousness – and in his flickering romance with Mary (Patricia Arquette, Cage’s wife), a heart attack victim’s ex-junkie daughter. Whenever these two are on screen together, the film reaches back to an older New York movie tradition of classics like ”On the Waterfront” – but only in a faded, thirdhand way. Elmer Bernstein’s traditional score sighs in the background, Arquette stares at her shoes like a fallen Eva Marie Saint, and the film turns limp and directionless.
The movie gets a temporary boost, though, when Frank goes to rescue Mary from a drug den. As the velvet-toned dealer Cy, the phenomenal New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis is the first voice of reason the hero has heard in months, and so what if the peace he is offering is pharmaceutical and ruinous? That Frank takes him up on the offer, in ways both expected and unexpected, provides ”Bringing Out the Dead” with a satisfying moral complexity, but it’s one that works more in your head than on the screen. Where Travis Bickle once stormed into a pimp’s apartment bearing death, Frank Pierce returns to Cy’s flat to bring him back to life. Somehow, sadly, that makes for a lesser movie.