The Bag Man
The slow-but-inescapable erosion of John Cusack’s movie career has been steadily progressing for well over a decade now, but still it is disheartening to see one of the most interesting actors of the 80s and 90s mired in garbage like The Bag Man.
Of course Cusack isn’t the only one slumming here. Once upon a time Robert De Niro was arguably the finest actor in film. Now he’s wearing a Liberace hairstyle, punching women in the nose, trying to be genially menacing and chewing scenery like no one’s business as the mysterious gangster who sets the action of The Bag Man in motion. However, De Niro has been slumming in crap for so long now that his once sterling reputation is in tatters. People now expect that anything De Niro does will suck, and most of the time they are right.
However, Cusack still has a bit of the shine that he built up in some classic films like Say Anything, The Sure Thing, Grosse Pointe Blank and Bullets on Broadway. Unlike De Niro, who has become the acting equivalent of a prostitute, Cusack still seems to put some thought and imagination in his role choices. He may no longer be a huge box office draw, but he does in general pick intelligent, offbeat movies to take on. He’ll even occasionally stumble into a minor hit like The Butler, 1408, Hot Tub Time Machine or 2012.
Even The Bag Man is an interesting choice for him – at least in theory, even if the film does not end up working. Still, the hard-boiled film noir vibe of the movie is an acting risk for Cusack, an actor who is better known for comedies, but is also quite good in straight dramatic roles. It’s definitely a stretch for the actor, though The Bag Man was somewhat reminiscent of The Ice Harvest, a better dark crime drama Cusack took on about a decade ago (and one of the final films by recently deceased director Harold Ramis.)
The movie is a pretty simple McGuffin storyline pilfered from Pulp Fiction.
Cusack plays Jack, a hardened hit man whose wife was mysteriously murdered sometime in the hazy past. (It mostly seems to be at least a few years back, but a later plot point seems to suggest it was fairly recent.) He’s now a paranoid drunk, but still seems to be at the top of his field.
He is approached by Dragna (De Niro), a powerful and ruthless gangster with the hair of a televangelist. (You can tell he’s tough because he gleefully breaks his secretary’s nose. Then again, how tough is it to beat up a woman? You never really see him go mano-a-mano with a man until the end of the film.)
Dragna offers Jack a life-changing job which will offer him an exorbitant payday. (To keep the vague sense of timelessness and confusion, no specific amount is ever given, it is just referred to as a great amount.) All Jack has to do to get the money is pick up a bag somewhere (they never say or show where he gets it) and deliver it to a specific room in a rundown and nearly empty motel in the middle of nowhere.
Hmm, everyone is going after a mysterious bag where no one knows what is inside? Yeah, haven’t seen that storyline too many times since Pulp Fiction.