Well, it was bound to happen. A reviewer can’t love every movie he sees. To be sure, I’ve been quite fortunate with all of the others that I’ve reviewed for Minnesota Connected. Today I watched director David Grovic’s neo-noir film The Bag Man starring John Cusack, Robert De Niro, and Rebecca da Costa. The most disappointing thing about this movie is that it is so close to being good.
The Bag Man is based off a screenplay entitled “Motel” (which was in turn based off a story entitled “The Cat.”) The plot begins very simply. Underworld kingpin Dragna (played by DeNiro…obviously) offers professional criminal Jack (John Cusack) a large sum of money to deliver a mystery bag to a remote motel. The terms of the deal are easy enough: deliver the bag to the motel, don’t look inside the bag, get paid.
However, naturally things go awry. Jack is forced to kill one of the bag handlers after an attempt on his life. Injured, paranoid, and angry, Jack holes up at Dragna’s motel meeting spot. Once there, Jack meets even more people interested in the bag and its contents. Quickly realizing that these people mean to kill him and take the bag, Jack grows even more paranoid and violent. He eventually runs into Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), a wayward prostitute on the run from her pimp. Together they try to unravel the mystery of the bag without getting killed in the process.
The most interesting aspect of The Bag Man is its atmosphere. Grovic is clearly a fan of film noir and neo-noir. Many of the scenes are reminiscent of David Lynch, but don’t quite achieve his unsettling absurdity. Rivka’s over-the-top outfit and blue wig — along with an Eastern European midget gangster — all create an air of semi-fantasy. The soundtrack’s use of back-woodsy/swampy Dobro licks and low, dirty-drone notes also helped with this tone.
Where The Bag Man goes wrong is the tired performances by its two lead actors. John Cusack never ends up making a good criminal in a movie, even if the audience is supposed to root for him. He’s still just too wholesome. De Niro gives standard De Niro. Yes, we know you’re tough. Yes, we know you’re awesome. Yes, your character probably calls for something along the lines of what you’re giving. But can’t you give us something else? Even for a little bit? Just as an experiment?
Rebecca Da Costa also leaves quite a lot to be desired with her performance. Clearly her beauty and raw sexual power carry a lot of the role, but certainly not all of it — at least for me. There were moments when I either cringed from the awkward weakness of her delivery, or just giggled to myself. I realize I am probably too harsh on actors and actresses, but if their performances are not top-notch, I quickly lose interest and find myself checking my watch.
Another regrettable aspect of The Bag Man was its inability to leave a mostly cool and simple plot alone. There were some scenes of disproportionate violence that left me wondering what the director hoped to achieve other than kill a few minutes and shock some people into attention. There was also a strange twist at the end which to me added nothing to the previous 90 minutes. Granted, I haven’t read the screenplay or story that this movie is based off of. Perhaps Grovic was staying true to the narrative. Either way, I didn’t care for it.
To be sure, The Bag Man is not a terrible movie. It’s just disappointing considering how good it could have been. The atmosphere and some elements of the plot are commendable. However, the weak (or just predictable) acting from otherwise excellent actors took away so much from the film’s potential power. Add some unnecessary violence and awkward plot twists, and you’re left with a movie that leaves me saying, “Watch it, but don’t expect to be blown away.”
Photos via: Google