the bag man

Film: The Bag Man
Directed by: David Grovic
Starring: John Cusack, Robert De Niro, Rebecca Da Costa

There was a point in John Cusack’s career where it was pretty clear what he was doing: cashing in his checks from starring in massive blockbusters (Con Air, America’s Sweethearts, 2012) so he could fund his passion projects (Grosse Pointe Blank, High Fidelity, War, Inc.). It seemed like a winning strategy, and I wish I knew what went wrong over the past few years as I no longer have any idea what in the hell he’s doing.

The Bag Man is the latest in a long string of nondescript thrillers (see: The Numbers Station or The Factory) Cusack has been starring in over the past few years that are lucky to make it into a handful of theaters before fizzling out on home video and VOD. Luckily, The Bag Man pairs him with Robert De Niro, whose career, barring a few collaborations with David O. Russell, has taken a similar turn in recent years.

I say “luckily” because De Niro’s unhinged performance as the film’s misogynistic heel is really the best (or only?) reason to watch this thill-less thriller. De Niro, trying the Buddy Garrity hairstyle on for size, opens the film on his private jet where he explains the terms of a business agreement to Cusack’s character. The terms are simple. Cusack is offered “an exorbitant sum of money” to retrieve the bag, which he’ll later hand over to De Niro. The only stipulation is that he cannot, under any circumstances, look inside the bag.

Need a visual aid? Well you’re in luck! De Niro conveniently has just one piece of broccoli (representing money), one potato (representing the mysterious bag) and two pieces of steak (representing himself and Cusack) left on his plate so he can walk us through the process.

And because there appear to be outside forces compelling Cusack to make a film that takes place almost entirely in a creepy or seedy motel every few years, that’s where we spend much of the next 90 minutes. Hell, Motel was even the title of the original script for The Bag Man. The motel in The Bag Man succeeds in meeting the qualifications of both seedy and creepy, but the latter mostly comes courtesy of Crispin Glover doing his best Crispin Glover impersonation as the motel’s wheelchair-bound manager. We briefly think the film might go the way of Psycho as Glover mentions his dead mother, but that turns out to be just an aside that was thrown in for no apparent reason.

And that lack of identity and focus is really the film’s biggest problem. There are elements of horror, mystery, dark comedy and film noir, but director/co-writer David Grovic just can’t figure out what type of film he wants to make — aside from a very dimly lit, ugly one.

The fact that I just mentioned film noir means a femme fatale must be inserted to complicate Cusack’s rather simple orders of simply hanging tight in the motel room until De Niro comes knocking. This damsel in distress comes in the form of Rebecca Da Costa, a tall, scantily clad Brazilian actress dressed up like Wonder Woman who begs Cusack to help protect her from a Serbian midget and an angry black man with an eyepatch. I’m not making this shit up, folks.

What follows are a few scenes of De Niro beating up women, poorly conceived shootouts and backwoods manhunts, none of which are likely to get your heart rate going. There should be an added level of intrigue given the mystery of what’s in the bag, but that device has already been used much more effectively in countless movies, from Kiss Me Deadly to Pulp Fiction and Se7en. What’s left is essentially a thriller without thrills, and really, the only thing worse than that is a comedy without laughs.

Grade: D

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  • Great cast, promising premise, and lots of great camera work, but the movie just tries too hard and has some really cringe-inducing dialogue scenes. Still, I love John Cusack and Robert DeNiro (and both do as good of a job as they can in this movie) and I think overall the film is getting a little too harsh of reviews based on high expectations.

    The good:

    – The acting – well done by all involved.
    – The music – lots of good use of music, I particularly liked how they used “Beacon” by Fellow Bohemian during the scene where Jack returns to the motel and Ned watches him from the office. The music plays in the background in Ned’s office. I wonder if John Cusack was involved in music selection, he always seems to have good tunes in his movies, especially the more indie ones.

    – The action scenes – well shot and convincing.

    The bad:
    – The bag – tried way too hard here, instead of using restraint like Pulp Fiction.
    – Overly scholary dialogue – sorry Mr. Writer, your Sun Tzu references impress nobody

    Overall a solid movie, but leaves you wishing it could be something more.