Jack (John Cusack) has one task to complete on his newest assignment: deliver a bag. There's only one rule: don't open it. Don't look in the bag for any reason. Jack doesn't quite understand the assignment, but Dragna (Robert De Niro) is offering a hefty enough paycheck that Jack figures he doesn't really care...until he tries to complete the task. Before he's even arrived at the drop point, he's had to kill a man who shot him in the hand, and he's a little wary of the manager (Crispin Glover) of the creepy motel he's been instructed to stay at, of the statuesque, blue-haired woman next door (Rebecca De Costa), and her two friends (Kirk "Sticky Fingaz" Jones, Martin Klebba). Around every corner, Jack sees someone else who wants the bag, someone who might kill him to get it...and he doesn't even know what it is.
Set in the sweltering abyss of the Louisiana bayou, director / writer David Grovic never clearly settles on what kind of movie he wants to make. When Dragna gives Jack the assignment, it sounds like a fairly standard thriller set-up, through to the part where Jack arrives at his isolated hotel. His oddball neighbors create a brief Lynchian vibe, as if maybe the mystery of what's in the bag and the craziness of his surroundings will drive Jack insane. The introduction of Rebecca De Costa's character as an obvious femme fatale turns the movie into a film noir for a spell, then there's a car chase and a gunfight right out of an action movie. As the film goes into the home stretch, Grovic ham-fistedly borrows some techniques from Tarantino (whether he intends to or not), then gets oddly spiritual, before finally topping the film off with a half-twist that requires a character to explain everything for the audience's benefit. This tonal schizophrenia would be more exciting if The Bag Man did any of these very well.
The basic stew Grovic aims to prepare with this mishmash of tones and elements is a "one crazy night" kind of vibe, probably with a black comic element to it, but each section feels too distinct, separated by scenes of Jack and De Costa's character Rivka just sitting in his hotel room and talking (more on that in a minute). Each new ridiculous character or turn of events should be another ball that Jack has to keep in the air at once while also fearing for his life, but the timing of these developments allows him to set down each ball before the next one arrives. The appearance of a group of police officers, led by Officer Larson (Dominic Purcell), is especially sloppy. Although they have a story-based reason to enter the film presented in the movie, Grovic has so little tonal control that they come off as a weird forced detour in a story that otherwise is confined to the motel.
De Costa is the film's weak link, blandly realizing a character that Grovic awkwardly forces into the story. Shortly after Jack arrives at the motel, he identifies one of his neighbors as a fed, and immediately busts into the guy's room, killing the guy and his partner. Ten minutes later, he comes back from a convenience store to find Rivka in his room, asking for a place to hide. Aside from Dragna explaining the job, everything we've seen has established Jack as ruthless, professional, sensitive, and, on this particular night, irritable, because he's been shot in the hand. There's no way in hell he'd humor someone who had broken into his room -- and even openly threatens to screw up his bag drop in an attempt to force him to help her -- for even five seconds, and it only gets worse as Rivka becomes pushy, obnoxious, and suspicious. For most of the film, Jack openly believes Rivka may hired to hurt him, and yet he stays by her, helping her out of jams and allowing her actions to get him into new ones. Maybe this would seem slightly less crazy if Jack's attraction to Rivka was compelling (even though it's even harder to believe a longtime professional like Jack can't just shut his libido down until the gig is finished), but De Costa has no charisma. She's either flat or irritating, especially in any moment where she appeals to Jack's emotions or conscience, and the viewer can see De Costa trying to execute the phrase "feminine wiles" from space. (To that end, Grovic also forces her to spend most of the movie in a bustier or just a bra and six-inch cut-offs, which is especially awkward in an overlong scene in the police station.)
By the time De Niro shows up and starts to explain everything, The Bag Man has already jumped the rails. There's a surreal element to the scenes that follow, but so much nonsense has happened that those interesting elements are sort of lost at sea. Grovic also follows it with an unexpected and unnecessary coda (two scenes, actually, one a flashback inside of the other) that almost makes it seem like the surrealism was just an accident. There's a movie in here somewhere: Grovic certainly makes the film visually interesting for very little, is competent at action, and has a really interesting idea when it comes to what's in the bag and what it means to Dragna and Jack. Unfortunately, The Bag Man doesn't seem to know how to explore that idea without a bunch of other junk on top of it, as suffocating and uncomfortable as a hot bayou evening.
Boxes! At an angle! With faces inside of them! Despite a perfectly evocative image -- one that actually kind of looks like a movie poster in one of the cover's boxes, whoever designed the Blu-Ray cover for The Bag Man stuck to the stereotypical playbook. This one-disc Blu-Ray release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, with a glossy slipcover to go on the outside, and a sheet advertising the UltraViolet digital copy on the inside.
The Video and Audio
Universal's Blu-Ray of The Bag Man has no trouble delivering a technically spectacular presentation in terms of both its 2.39:1 1080p AVC picture or its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The most impressive aspect of this transfer are the black levels -- this is one of the darkest movies I've seen in quite awhile, taking place almost entirely at night inside a poorly-lit hotel room, and yet, despite the increasing frequency with which I see artifacts or banding on DVDs and even Blu-Rays, the transfer never falters. Detail is razor-sharp, which can make the film look a little cheap, but certainly shows off the capabilities of high-def. Audio-wise, there's more than just dialogue to contend with, as the film builds into fistfights, gunfights, car chases, and explosions. The music also provides a great opportunity for low end. Surprisingly, no other audio tracks are provided, just English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and French and Spanish subtitles.
Only one extra is included: "Behind-the-Scenes of The Bag Man" (29:49, HD). This is an unusually low-energy piece (the tired expressions everyone's wearing in a bunch of the B-roll is almost a bummer), featuring on-set interviews with the cast and crew and a few too many film clips, but it does capture some of the tone of the shoot itself. You also get to hear De Niro explain he got his own dog cast in the movie, in case you were wondering.
Trailers for Better Living Through Chemistry, "Bates Motel", Welcome to the Jungle, and Not Safe For Work play before the main menu. No trailer for The Bag Man is included; in fact, the one extra is listed directly on the main menu instead of dropping down to a separate special features menu.
The Bag Man is either too much or too little: too effective to ignore its flaws, or too ineffective at developing its ideas to make it worth watching anyway. Skip it.
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