You know Oscar season has officially ended when Reel Reactions posts its umpteenth consecutive negative review. C’est la vie. The Bag Man marks Robert De Niro’s latest stinker, unfortunately confirming Silver Linings Playbook as the exception to his decade(s)-long string of lazy, bland, or flat-out bad film choices, and not the starting point of a revival of the 70s-era De Niro we all love. But The Bag Man differs from De Niro’s other recent films, such as Grudge Match, Last Vegas, and The Family, in that he obviously did not join this tiny, indy project for a quick, fat paycheck, like he must have cashed from the big studios to slap his name and attached fame onto their posters. It makes sense, in a sad but secretly totally understandable way, that De Niro would whore himself out to self-lampoon in a poorly received Raging Bull or The Godfather parody, but why waste his incredibly precious time and talent on such a small, generic thriller script as The Bag Man if millions don’t await at the end of the rainbow? What did De Niro see in this movie?
The Bag Man follows a criminal (John Cusack) named, you guessed it, Jack, who owes mob boss Dragna (De Niro) a favor. Dragna’s request sounds easy enough: take this bag to that motel, wait there for me, and no matter what, do not look inside the bag. The concept’s simplicity entices you because you don’t quite know what will happen; the story could take off in practically any direction. The field stretches wide open. We could see Beckett-esque absurdism, with Cusack questioning his role in life as he lingers alone in the empty motel room waiting for Godot—I mean, Dragna. We could see a McDonagh-esque exploration of the morality and guilt of the lower ranks of organized crime, akin to recent classic In Bruges.
But alas, an Irish playwright did not pen The Bag Man. I couldn’t tell you the themes covered here even if I wanted to. Nothing emotional, intellectual, or philosophical resonated, even on a level you could reasonably ask for from a piece of action-oriented entertainment. I never found myself caring about any of the characters or engaging with any of their struggles. It followed perhaps the most predictable and least interesting series of events that could have happened, involving the entangling of a beautiful and mysterious woman (Rebecca Da Costa) in the plot, undoubtedly so the adolescent boys in the audience would have a pair of something more appealing to glue their eyes to than the pairs of two-dimensional thugs Cusack has to shoot and kill every couple scenes, plot developments that themselves could only be considered engaging by the most easily entertained of the aforementioned adolescent male target audience, to keep the it moving. In short, the plot proffers nothing of interest in the plot itself; it relies entirely on shootout scenes and the objectification of the female lead. Even the big twist ¾ths into the movie surprises so minimally that you might not even realize it was meant to be the big twist.
So we’ve established the weakness of the script. How about the acting? John Cusack acts the same as he does in all of his other movies not titled Being John Malkovich, meaning he’s not quite cringe-inducing, but he’s not outstanding in any way. Robert De Niro performs here at his worst, which admittedly still entertains quite well. You can tell he isn’t trying in the slightest, but he’s still a fun presence to watch. Rebecca Da Costa is not nearly as terrible an actress as I expected; she holds her own against Cusack. If I had to pick a best performance from the three leads (which I wouldn’t unless I actually had to), I might actually choose hers. She balances the vulnerability and the toughness of a stereotypical female action hero believably. Crispin Glover, best known as George “You-are-my-density” McFly from Back to the Future, appears as the inexplicably strange motel clerk, fitting into the niche Glover has been trapped in for the length of his career. Unfortunately, Glover didn’t get the screen-time he deserved, only appearing long enough for you to wonder why on Earth this guy has yet to be cast as a Bond villain, before drifting into the background just as he makes you start to actually kind of enjoy watching the movie. Aside from these four, all the players in smaller roles, especially the hit men Cusack fights, just act poorly.
If anything redeems The Bag Man, the cinematography does. I’d actually give its Director of Photography Steve Mason a hardy pat on the back for his work here. The dim lighting successfully engenders the intended chilling atmosphere while utilizing windows, shadows, colors, and other typical mechanisms to latch the audience’s eyes on the action onscreen. Everything else about the movie is adequate – the crew did its job and made a cohesive film, but never proceeded above and beyond. As much as I tried to enjoy The Bag Man, and it was bearable enough to sit through, I can’t honestly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have a particular affinity for someone involved in the movie or for cinematography. As for what Robert De Niro was doing here, I was no more enlightened by the end of the movie than before it started.
Review by Matthew D’Innocenzo