Dead fellas

Film - Jonathan Romney feels nostalgic about the new Scorsese

Downbeat though it is, there's a curious air of nostalgia hovering around Martin Scorsese's new film Bringing Out the Dead, rather as if your favourite 70s rock band had reformed. For years, Scorsese has been making films that either didn't feel entirely like Scorsese (his contemplative Buddhist epic Kundun, the fragrant costumer The Age of Innocence) or felt too much like Scorsese, as if he were pastiching himself (GoodFellas, the maligned masterpiece Casino). But now he has returned to an early stamping ground, the festering, violent New York of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. He has also reunited with Taxi Driver's writer Paul Schrader, a man recently lost in the wilderness of his own erratic directing career. Everyone, then, ought to be happy; but Bringing Out the Dead - adapted from Joe Connelly's novel - doesn't feel entirely like a decisive event. It seems more like one of those signpost films that major directors make, providing tantalising clues while you speculate about their next move. That's the downside to being taken as seriously, watched as closely as Scorsese is: you get far less critical leeway than most directors.

The deja vu begins at the start: vintage Van Morrison blasting out and a title telling we're in New York in the early 90s, before Giuliani and Disney wielded their brooms. The streets are wet with neon, and an ambulance cruises along, close-ups of its horns making them seem heavenly trumpets come to summon dying souls. The driver is Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), a man at the end of his tether, battered and punchdrunk from a life of urgency, sleep deprivation and failure. He's part of an absurd machine: condemned for ever to arrive too late to save lives, but repeatedly providing reprieves for the self-destructive crazies who strain the resources of Our Lady of Mercy (or "Misery") Hospital. Frank's personal cross is a young woman named Rose, whom he couldn't save: in a striking digitally achieved dream sequence, he sees her accusing features in every face he passes.

Because of the setting, the writer and the story of a lonely desperado on wheels, Bringing Out the Dead has widely been received as a variant on Taxi Driver. Like that film's Travis Bickle, Frank fixates on a fallen-angel figure: the significantly named Mary, daughter of a man he has revived from a heart attack. Mary is the film's weak link. This is partly because Patricia Arquette's performance rarely registers more than a bloodless, fatigued void, but largely because the character is so overstated as a spiritual redeemer and redeemee: she could have been a nun, but was a junkie instead, and the film won't be over till she and Frank huddle together in a glow of radiant white. I attribute this to Schrader, who has long been committed to Bresson-style redemptive endings. Bringing Out the Dead seems as much like a Schrader film as a Scorsese one: not so much an echo of Taxi Driver as of Schrader's own tale of urban angst and insomnia, Light Sleeper.

What really interests Scorsese in this story, I think, is less the linear path to daylight and salvation than the business of keeping a chaotic, infernal nightworld spinning with teeming wildlife and sudden explosions of calamity. There are extraordinary turns and moments: Ving Rhames's ebulliently religious orderly persuading a club full of sullen goths to join hands for an OD'd friend; the Cerberus-like ward guard whose perennial threat is to remove his mirror shades; Cliff Curtis as a suave pusher who presides over the Oasis, a narcotic refuge from the city hell and the very heart of that hell. In the film's most memorable, nightmarish scenes, Frank visits the Oasis and undergoes a drugged temptation akin to the one that Scorsese once controversially staged for Christ. When Scorsese perceives grace, it's above all in visual terms: a shower of blowtorch sparks suddenly becomes a full-blown firework display over Manhattan.

Despite the pacing and intense visual urgency (the photography is by Oliver Stone's regular, Robert Richardson), Bringing Out the Dead feels oddly narcotised, sluggish - although that's entirely in keeping with the state of Frank's soul, caught between the buzz and the void. But what drags the film down are niggling errors of judgement, such as the confused pop soundtrack: Van Morrison and Johnny Thunders are perfect, the Clash, UB40 and REM seriously misplaced. And the serious casting problem is that Nicolas Cage no longer supplies any surprises: we expect from him the brittle rage of a disintegrating soul, but imagine what a revelation Tom Hanks, say, might have provided in that role.

One side effect of the film's oddly narcoleptic all-nighter quality is that I emerged from it feeling washed-out, woozy, not entirely able to take stock of what I'd seen. I suspect this is one of those films that, on release, disappoints everyone, but with time is remembered as having been entirely underrated; it's odd how many Scorsese films fall into this category. Bringing Out the Dead may be a noble failure, but it's an urgent, fevered failure. Through the 1990s, Scorsese tended to play the confident, august Visconti-esque maestro, something he does well; but it's a fascinating, if frustrating, shock to get a glimpse again of the nervy, omnivorous hustler.