I have only myself to blame. After checking out the trailer for The Bag Man (previously Motel) and noting the presence of John Cusack and Robert De Niro, two actors who have done terrific work in the past (I mean, De Niro has two Oscars on his mantelpiece, for chrissake), I started to get a little excited for this indie crime thriller. Perhaps it would maintain a cool, neo-noir vibe, or at least give Cusack and De Niro a chance to craft nasty, interesting characters. Alas, that quantum of expectation simply made it all the more agonizing for me to sit through one of the laziest, dopiest thrillers I’ve seen in years.
The film starts off with a boring set-up, as criminal Jack (Cusack) gets an assignment from his big-shot boss Dragna (De Niro): pick up a bag and hold it at a seedy motel until Dragna arrives. Under no circumstances is he to look inside. One of the major problems with The Bag Man (and there are many problems with The Bag Man, from its script to its acting to its screeching score) is that its writers really overestimate how interesting their MacGuffin is.”What’s in the bag?” plead characters at various points in the movie, but I never found myself asking that question. The central mystery of The Bag Man is more “Why would I care?” than anything else.
Things get much worse for The Bag Man when De Niro departs a few minutes in, leaving Cusack to carry the film until its climax. Cusack is an interesting actor in the same way that Nicolas Cage is an interesting actor. Like Cage, he’s terrific to watch in some films (High Fidelity, 1408) and laughably terrible in others (Must Love Dogs, 2012). Usually, he phones it in and appears to be almost sleep-walking through his lines. Also like Cage, he picks some incredibly strange projects. Particularly in recent years, Cusack has signed up for more than his fair share of terrible, low-budget productions. Previously, the worst offenders were The Factory and The Numbers Station, two action thrillers more forgettable than aggressively bad. Now, it gives me no pleasure to say that out of all of Cusack’s recent career missteps, The Bag Man easily takes the cake.
It’s hard to pinpoint the worst part of this disaster, but its writing is a strong candidate. Alternately soporific and preposterous, the screenplay doesn’t provide any of the film’s actors with fully-formed characters or take them to even remotely interesting places. You’ve seen The Bag Man before and done much better elsewhere; everything on screen feels exhaustively derivative. That includes the characters, none of whom demonstrate an iota of intelligence or personality. The film’s protagonist, Jack, suffers the most, as his hare-brained decisions paint him as one of the most inept criminals in cinematic history. His half-baked backstory just adds more tedium to the proceedings.
Cusack seems to at least be aware of his misfortune in ending up with The Bag Man, because he never exhausts himself by trying to make Jack plausible or interesting. To be fair, it would have been a Herculean effort for the actor to salvage such a poorly written character, and his drowsy line delivery is ideally matched to the film’s barely-there tempo. Still, Cusack could have done a lot more than glower at the camera with the same, slack-jawed expression for 108 minutes. Seriously, if dopey facial movements constituted Oscar bait, Cusack would be drowning in golden statuettes right now. He’s a talented actor… just not here.
The supporting cast is weak, with the obvious exception of De Niro. Playing a quasi-prostitute who’s intended to be at once seductive, mysterious and bad-ass, Rebecca Da Costa flails. There’s just no other way to put it. Burdened by a script that never justifies her actions or explains how Jack, supposedly a hardened criminal, is unable to shake her, let alone why she’s determined to stick by his side, Da Costa has nothing to work with, and she’s not strong enough as an actress to find any logic in her character’s wildly oscillating demeanor. Out of all the characters, she’s made the most absurd by The Bag Man‘s ridiculous twists. Though Da Costa lacks conviction, her character’s ineffectuality is ultimately more a fault of the script than the actress.
Crispin Glover does do unhinged well as the motel’s wheelchair-bound owner, but he’s not in nearly enough scenes. The same goes for Dominic Purcell, playing a crooked cop who makes it his business to take down Jack, and Martin Klebba as a supremely nasty dwarf pimp. Klebba does get the film’s best line, after randomly deciding to piss on Jack after beating him down: “Hehehe, I pissed on his fucking head!” No, seriously, that’s the film’s A-game.
The Bag Man has unintentional touches of bizarre black comedy, which occasionally relieve some of the plodding drama. It’s just a shame that director David Grovic didn’t feel confident enough to embrace the belly laughs that his film’s disastrously bad script warranted.
When De Niro returns for the final act, The Bag Man becomes momentarily bearable. Even when handed a vaguely evil mob boss who does vaguely evil things for vaguely evil reasons, he’s able to wring a surprising amount of menace out of the character. No bones about it – this was a paycheck movie for De Niro, plain and simple. Still, there are few actors who can chew the scenery with as much determination.
Grovic does a serviceable job with the film’s action sequences, and the best one, a dimly-lit gunfight in the woods, is reserved for De Niro and Cusack late in the game. However, it’s all too little, far too late. At its best, The Bag Man is merely bad. At its worst, this is avert-your-eyes terrible moviemaking. If you’re still awake (or even present) for the film’s contemptible finale, you’ll be among the minority in your theater.
Not even Robert De Niro can save this awful, lazy excuse for a thriller, which starts out tedious and quickly spirals into insulting stupidity.