By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
5:10 PM PST, February 27, 2014
There are so many good reasons to bag "The Bag Man." Where to begin?
Director David Grovic, who co-wrote the mobster thriller with Paul Conway, seems to be inspired by the seedy crime-noir sensibility the Coen brothers brought to 1984's cult classic "Blood Simple" or Quentin Tarantino to the brilliant bruising of 1994's "Pulp Fiction."
The filmmaker is also confused by it apparently, because both aforementioned films have believable underpinnings and interesting characters who are put through their twisted paces by artists who actually have an endgame in mind.
Instead, "The Bag Man," starring John Cusack, Robert De Niro and Rebecca Da Costa, is a brutally violent, misogynistic mind game gone wrong.
It begins with Dragna, De Niro's well-heeled mob type, cutting a bloody steak in a private jet while he proceeds to make Jack (Cusack) an offer he can't refuse: Pick up a bag, don't look inside, wait for Dragna to pick it up, get paid lots of bucks. Did I mention that no matter what happens, Jack must never look inside the bag?
The filmmakers should never let the audience look inside either, because it is the most nonsensical crime caper to make it on screen in a while. What logic might have survived to that point in the film dies a quick and dirty death.
Death, and dispensing it, seems to be the central theme of the film. It gives Cusack the chance to play a bad guy who is really good under all that short-tempered, punch-a-girl-if-I-have-to, kill-a-guy-if-I-must gruffness. Cusack makes Jack ever so slightly interesting.
Da Costa plays Rivka, a long-tall Sally who is turning tricks until she figures out what she really wants to do with her life. At the moment she'd rather not die, and she's interested in the idea of being Jack's partner in crime.
Rivka, a Serbian dwarf named Quano (Martin Klebba), an angry pimp named Lizard (Sticky Fingaz) and an irritating, rule- and wheelchair-bound motel clerk named Ned (Crispin Glover) are the key players hanging around a sleazy roadside motel. This is where Jack is instructed to wait for further instructions. In Room 13. Cue ominous music.
In fact, just keep the ominous music playing because for the rest of the film Jack will be driven by cloudy reasons to increase the body count in brutal ways.
I do like De Niro playing a wiseguy, instead of the clown act he's being doing a lot of in recent years. I just don't like this particular wiseguy. Still, the actor delivers his lines with the kind of threat that reminds you of how really great he is — in the right role.
Meanwhile, in spite of all the bad clothing choices that Rivka is forced to waltz around in, Da Costa is possibly the most interesting actor in the film. She's not had a role yet that asks much of her, but you get the sense she might be a knockout in the right one, and not for the assets exposed here.
The cinematography, handled by David Knight, is going for a dark, gritty verité style. Often it's so dark you can barely tell what is on screen, which shouldn't be taken as a criticism. I'd say the film unravels at some point, but that would assume there was something there to unravel.
Weirdly, I not only kept watching, I couldn't stop watching. But then I'm fascinated by train wrecks too.
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