If ever a movie poster encapsulated a movie perfectly, the poster for Bringing Out the Dead does so. Monochromatically red, with a medical cross cutout of Nicolas Cage's soulful eyes, it sums up both the plot of the film -- a burned-out paramedic seeking redemption -- and the tortured Catholicism that constitutes the film's subtext. From a ridiculous take on the Nativity to major characters named Noel and Mary, Dead is suffused with the religious allegory that's informed both Martin Scorsese's and Paul Schroder's work in the past. But they've gone to that particular well too many times, and their new collaboration feels as tired as Cage's strung-out ambulance driver. Usually a wiz with using pop tunes to juice his film's emotions, Scorsese blunders here; his use of both R.E.M.'s "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" and 10,000 Maniacs' "These Are Days" are badly misguided. Like any Scorsese movie, there are some magnificent scenes; one where Ving Rhames' tent-revival preacher/paramedic "resurrects" an OD victim is a particular standout. But outside of Rhames, none of the performances are noteworthy and the movie fragments into a collage of ER hijinx and shots of Cage looking all mopey.
This may be due to my extreme familiarity to both songs. I've developed
highly specific and personal connections to both, and Scorsese's and my
emotional reading of the songs simply don't match. In particular, the choice
of the Maniacs seems strange; they're just too rural in sensibility to work
in a scene set in Hell's Kitchen.
Having such a blast that it's easy to forgive that his work is more an elaborate performance piece than acting. Besides, there's nothing else in the film that matches his entertainment value.