Film Review – The Bag Man
The Bag Man
The Bag Man (2014) starts out in midstream. A crime boss named Dragna (Robert De Niro) hires Jack (John Cusack) – one of his most trusted men – to carry out an important mission. Jack is to retrieve a black bag, take it to a motel, and wait there until Dragna comes to pick it up. Jack is not to draw any attention to himself, and under no circumstances is he to look inside the bag. The task is clean and easy enough to follow. But of course, this is the movies, where simple plans never work out like they’re supposed to. What was intended to be a quiet night turns into a bizarre odyssey of strange occurrences, none of which Jack could have expected.
I enjoy these seedy, pulpy types of crime stories. They allow filmmakers to play with the form and try different things, even when the premises have similarities with previous works. How many times have we seen a plot that involves some kind of mystery bag holding contents we don’t see? John Cusack is well acquainted with this set up, in films like Identity (2003) and 1408 (2007) all taking place in or around a hotel. He’s able to exude weariness in his performances, trudging along step by step knowing he has to keep moving no matter how reluctant he feels about where he’s going.
His character is placed in a world befitting of his occupation. Jack is a criminal, and has killed many people. Director David Grovic (who also co-wrote the script with Paul Conway, based on screenplay “The Motel” by James Russo) puts Jack in a run down hotel created out of a nightmare. Imagine the Bates Motel run by David Lynch, and you’d be getting somewhere close. Grovic fills the screen with a lot of dark shadows, sometimes to the extent where we can barely see what’s happening. No good can come of this place, only trouble. Even the lone employee – played by a wheel-chaired bound Crispin Glover – draws curious glances. Glover may be one of the best at playing strange and quirky, and his role here comes a bit close to type casting.
It seems no matter what Jack does, he finds himself in precarious situations. He could just sit in his room, drink himself into a stupor, and wait until Dragna arrives. But one random event leads to another, repeatedly putting Jack into some kind of trouble. Heck, he doesn’t even know the reason why he’s at the motel to begin with, or what possible devious plans Dragna has in store for him. Jack has little time to ponder that, as he has to deal with other criminals on the run, police officers knocking at his door, and an ex-stripper named Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), all forcing themselves into his life, and all interested over what’s in the bag. There must be some heavy-duty stuff in there to bring such bloody violence to everyone that even touches it.
The narrative is frustratingly repetitive. Jack has to deal with Rivka, first telling her to leave his room and then forcing her to stay, and then having to work himself out of a jam. Regardless of what happens – or how much harm comes his way – Jack constantly returns to the room (this guy is really loyal to his boss). He quarrels with Rivka over and over again. As a veteran assassin, Jack sure shows restraint with this person who I’m sure under any other circumstances would be rather insignificant. But because she has a pretty face and is wearing provocative clothing, of course his inner humanity would come creeping to the surface now.
I wouldn’t call this a “black comedy,” because not much actually happens that’s funny. Too bad Robert De Niro didn’t get the memo. His performance runs in the opposite direction as everybody else. Wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a haircut that’s out of control, De Niro chews up scenery as Dragna. He goes off on random monologues, taking tangents and dropping pop culture references like Beyonce or whatever random topic comes to his mind. In a career filled with intimidating characters, this is perhaps De Niro’s least convincing. He’s more a caricature than a person. His tone is so much different than the rest of the film that he sticks out in contrast. While the material takes a subtle dread and slowly builds it to a crescendo, he kicks the door down and jumps on center stage from the get go.
There’s a good film somewhere in The Bag Man, maybe even a great one. But the repetitive, episodic events surrounding Jack’s time at the hotel – coupled with a main villain who belongs in a different movie – sinks this genre piece instead of uplifting it. By the time we get to the climax and the closing scenes, the plot jumps completely off the rails. This is a story of bad things happening to bad people, but no one seems to be having devilish good time.