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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 5/17/00

Bringing Out the Dead
1999 (2000) - Paramount

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Bringing Out the Dead Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/C

Specs and Features
120 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch 1:06:44, in chapter 18), Amaray keep case packaging, cast and crew interviews, 2 theatrical trailers, film-themed menu screens, scene access (30 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

"I'll fire you tomorrow."

Bringing Out the Dead is Martin Scorsese's manic, frenzied look at three hellish nights in the life of Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), an EMS worker in Hell's Kitchen. For one reason or another, the film was largely overlooked in theaters, despite the fact that critics received it with great praise and admiration. But with its arrival on DVD comes a chance for audiences to see what they missed the first time around.

For the most part, Bringing Out the Dead is an exercise in style over substance. Scorsese's superb direction is there, but the story is a little more underdeveloped than it should be. Frank develops more in three days than most people do in a lifetime. When we first meet Frank, he tells us in narration that he drinks too much. He is calm but weary, and aware that he is in a job that will eventually do him in. By the end of the third day, he is so unraveled and deranged that he is willing to beat a man with a bat to make his job (and his life, for that matter) easier.

What helps the story are the performances by a strong supporting cast. John Goodman is good as Frank's levelheaded counterpart on his first night. The second night we see Frank, he's riding with Marcus (Ving Rhames), who brings a theatrical gospel touch to the profession. As Frank does his best to save an overdosed party-goer, Marcus breaks into an inventive sermon about the evils of drugs and the goodness of God.

It's in the last act of the film, during Frank's third night, that the story goes over the top. In a failed attempt to get fired, Frank shows up late to work, only to be paired with Tom Walls (Tom Sizemore). Tom makes your average disgruntled postal worker seem like Mother Teresa. Here is a person so detached from his life and profession that he beats the hell out of the people he is supposed to be saving. By the end of this night, both Tom and Frank are so drunk and high that they lose what little respect they had for themselves and others.

Perhaps the story would have connected better with me if I had seen just a little more of Frank's personal side. We only see him at work, and that doesn't create a very "whole" picture of him. He hates his job so much that he drinks while there, yet from what we're given, we're to believe that his work is his life. Nicolas Cage again plays a down-on-life drunk, but his work here comes nowhere near the brilliance he displayed in Leaving Las Vegas. Yes, the movie is supposed to have a hard comic edge to it, but the transition from the uneasy detachment on the first night to the comic sidekick in the third happens so quickly that it almost seems like Cage is playing three different characters. Had this part of the story been written better, I probably would have liked it more than I ultimately did. Still, Scorsese's tight direction and the outstanding camerawork by Robert Richardson are invigorating, and really put you in the front seat of the ambulance as Frank makes his way through New York City.

As is now standard with Paramount releases, Bringing Out the Dead is presented in its original aspect ratio (2.35:1) and is anamorphically enhanced. This is a very good looking picture, that is free of dust and scratches. The quality of this DVD video perfectly complements Richardson's stunning cinematography. Many of the brighter scenes have a luminous, neon-like quality to them, and they come across nicely without ever looking artificial or overly enhanced. There are a lot of evening shots for this movie, making black level extremely critical. Again, the disc delivers with deep, solid blacks that aren't at all marred by artifacting or graininess.

The 5.1 audio mix here is one of the subtler I've heard in a recent DVD release. While it's never poor in quality, there are times when I would have liked more use of the rear channels. These channels are used mainly for the music track, with only occasional use for effects. Dialogue is appropriately maintained in the center channel and is always audible. Given that this is a mostly dialogue-driven movie, it's hard to complain too much.

There are only a few features on this typically lightweight Paramount disc. First are the theatrical trailers, and both are widescreen with a 2.0 sound mix. And there's a 10-minute cast and crew interview section. This seems like it could have been part of a video EPK. The interviews we do get (Cage, Scorsese, and a few other cast/crew members) are nice, but are all too brief to be substantial. A commentary track with Scorsese or Robert Richardson (who has won multiple awards for his work) would have been a nice touch, but it's not to be.

From a technical standpoint, Bringing Out the Dead is a very good movie. But after watching it, I wished I had felt something other than exhilaration. Frank is haunted by his ghosts, but I didn't really feel any sympathy for him, nor could I empathize. Still, the movie is engaging and Rhames' over-the-top performance is a must see. The film's technical qualities come across very nicely on this DVD, making watching this disc time well spent.

Dan Kelly
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