It’s been two decades since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction crashed the zeitgeist and sent screenwriters everywhere rushing to their keyboards to create quirky criminals with the gift of gab. The best ones (In Bruges, Suicide Kings, Go) quickly form their own identity, but far too many seem content trying to mash together dark comedy and sharp violence and then calling it a day. Barely a month goes by without some new Tarantino-esque crime thriller hitting screens, and while it’s slowed down a bit recently the flow hasn’t stopped. Exhibit C for 2014… The Bag Man.
Jack (John Cusack) is hired by a crime boss named Dragna (Robert De Niro) to acquire a particular bag and then wait at a motel for pick-up and payoff. The most important part of the task? Do not, under any circumstances, look in the bag. Jack struggles to resist the urge, but the waiting game is complicated by a host of characters trying to sleep with him, kill him, or possibly both.
Writer/director David Grovic‘s debut is clearly inspired by the kinds of films mentioned above, but it feels more interested in duplicating a checklist than in creating its own unique world. Still, you can’t go too wrong with a movie that lets De Niro say a line like this:
“One day I was watching an episode of Full House where Jesse goes bungee-jumping with Becky. Changed my whole life.”
Jack gets shot while retrieving the bag, a sequence we don’t even get to see, and finds himself awash in “characters” as soon as he arrives at the motel. Ned (Crispin Glover) the motel clerk is wheelchair-bound and a bit too curious about Jack’s business, Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa) is a scantily-clad femme fatale on the run from the world’s two least believable pimps, and the two suit-wearing guys in the room next door sure seem suspiciously shifty too. The pair of rough and tumble flesh-dealers harassing Rivka include a tracksuit-wearing little person named Guano (Martin Klebba) and a bald black guy (Sticky Fingaz) with an eye patch. The two bear no resemblance to anyone who’s ever actually walked the earth in real life.
The entirety of the plot is Jack killing time and people while waiting for Dragna, and that’s perfectly fine. What’s less effective is the unreal feeling to it all. The characters feel forced into this sub-genre mold as if Grovic and co-writer Paul Conway used a random characteristic generator to flesh-out their creations and make them “cool” or memorable. It never feels authentic though, and instead of being in the range of the films above it feels more akin to something like Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead… ringing false, but mildly entertaining all the same. The dialogue occasionally feels dreamlike and surreal too, and things get weird enough that had there been a third-act reveal that this was a sequel to Cusack’s own Identity I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Cusack is at an odd point in his career and has been for the past few years. He’s moved away from lead roles in wide releases but still nabs the occasional supporting one (The Butler, The Paperboy) and instead is in a race to star in as many limited release (or in most cases, straight to DVD) titles as possible. The Bag Man is the first of six films for him this year, and he had the same number in 2013. But how many can you name? Happily, while he sleepwalks through too many of those he at least appears to be having fun here. Just not as much fun as De Niro. Obviously.
The Bag Man both suffers and thrives on its oddball aspects, and while it makes for an easy watch it also makes for a forgettable one. Both Cusack and De Niro have starred in far worse limited-release fare recently, so this one rises towards the top by default, but fans of either actor are encouraged to give it a chance. Just, whatever you do, don’t look in the bag.
The Upside: Cusack makes an effort; some fun dialogue; never dull
The Downside: Da Costa’s acting; story wanders a bit too much; tries too hard to be quirky; lack of kickboxing by Cusack; at the 1:30:51 mark there’s the most glaringly obvious ADR work ever with the words “your fiance”
On the Side: The original title was Motel.