I wonder what the toughest part about being the go-to guy for the town’s toughest gang boss is. Getting shot at? Constant hassles by the crooked cops? Not being able to trust anyone? It all sounds pretty rough to be honest. But imagine having to deal with that while you’re forced to sit in some filthy motel surrounded by bunch of slimy dirtbags for an entire night. Such is life for Jack (John Cusack), the cynical would-be hero behind The Bag Man. It’s a mostly-slick thriller that manages to stay entertaining thanks to a stellar cast and a gritty vibe that embraces the pulpier spectrum of the crime genre.
Jack’s got a pretty good gig ahead of him. His boss, the legendary Dragna (Robert De Niro who kills it of course) has laid it all out plain and simple. He needs his number one man to retrieve a bag, meet him at a motel, and hand it over without daring to look inside. Nothing to it. Just make sure it all goes smoothly, and Jack gets a huge suspiciously-unspecified paycheck. Of course anything that’s too good to be true usually is, and before he can even park his car trouble finds him. Thus begins a ridiculously long night of dodging twisted motel staff, parking lot pimps, and a seriously bent sheriff. Add to it the beautiful working girl who has stumbled into the mix and Jack’s got his hands full. And to top it all off, he’s got the tiniest suspicion that none of this is a coincidence.
That’s where The Bag Man both finds its strengths and suffers a few flaws. The film has a commendably unabashed commitment to what it is: a greasy, dirty crime yarn – a world populated by cliché’s rather than human beings, which is all the more entertaining for it. There are no redeemable qualities to the one-eyed man hassling people door to door or the two dirty feds one room over. There’s no real good versus bad here; you just go with it and root for whomever is “least bad”. It’s fun and, for the most part, it works. Cusack emulates the role with the cynicism and panache he always brings to the table. He’s streetwise and sharp, but still the underdog. Only so much can be said about De Niro, but it is a total blast to see him embrace a villain whose only purpose is to cause trouble. He gets to run wild, and brings the genuine menace and urgency to the story. The rest of the supporting cast is great too. The highlights include a seemingly ageless Crispin Glover, as well as Dominic Purcell as a slimy, sociopathic sheriff. From the first frame they’re on screen, you start counting down the seconds until they get what’s coming.
Which brings up the only real issue I had with the film. There’s not much to love for the ladies in the story. The only real female character is the lead Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), and from an appearance standpoint she fits into the world extremely well. She’s gorgeous, vulnerable, confident, giving whatever the scene needs from her. But the wide embrace of the morally vacant criminal world that encompasses the motel includes the poor treatment of women. From the get-go she’s abused by her pimp, distrusted by Jack, and accosted by the cops. It makes you wish that she was a little more femme-fatale than damsel-in-distress, at least during the first two acts.
Despite the slightly predictable character treatment and well-traveled territory, the story still manages to stay interesting. The cast takes the material with a total commitment and really brings it to life. Terrific production design lends a lot to the success of the film as well. Lighting and set design are all impeccably executed to bring the seamy motel to life. You almost get the impression Jack is feeling his way through the motel out of a nightmare, rather than some regular old flophouse. Flickering lights, oppressive colors, grimy windows, dark and sticky blood, it’s all there. The environment itself does a spot-on job of showing the audience that Jack is definitely not in a good place, and maintains an oppressive atmosphere throughout.
Ultimately, if you like your action straight and to the point The Bag Man is a great way to spend some time this weekend. It’s not overly deep or particularly thought provoking, so for those looking for a plot-heavy crime story it’ll come up a bit short. But this film knows its strengths, and does a swell job of stacking some solid characters against one another while giving them a terrific backdrop to strut in front of. If you can forgive a few excessively tasteless bits of pulpy violence, The Bag Man is just the right amount of grown-up fun.