You know that thing that happens when you make a photocopy, and then photocopy that photocopy, and you end up with a copy that comes nowhere near the quality of the original document? Well, the 2014 crime thriller The Bag Man, starring John Cusack, fits this description perfectly, presenting itself as a second-rate imitation of a mid-90s Quentin Tarantino flick. By itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Early Tarantino films combined quirky, charismatic characters with witty dialogue and dangerous situations in such a way as to always be interesting. The Bag Man tries to recreate this formula without understanding why the individual elements are necessary or how to craft them properly, churning out an end product that is somehow tedious and ponderous despite the numerous ‘what the fuck’ moments the film hurls at us.
The first sixty seconds of The Bag Man sets up the film’s relatively simple plot: crime lord Dragna (Robert De Niro) wants a criminal named Jack (John Cusack) to pick up a mysterious bag, check in to a seedy motel, and protect the bag in exchange for a hefty sum of money. Cusack only has one instruction: under no circumstances is he to look inside the bag. Once at the motel, things devolve into violence quickly as Cusack faces a rogue’s gallery of weird and quirky characters, including a blue-haired prostitute with potentially deceptive intentions, a dwarf in a track suit, a pimp with an eyepatch, Crispin Glover, and a squad of corrupt cops hell-bent on stopping him. Set amidst the gun fights and the double-dealing, the audience is drawn through the story wondering what’s in the box bag.
As a lead, John Cusack is almost perfectly suited for small, dark roles like this one, as evidenced by strong turns in 2003’s Identity or the more recent Grand Piano. Cusack brings an inherent likability and charm to any role he touches, a trait that is necessary in allowing us to root for Jack in spite of the non-existent background and character development present in the plot. Robert De Niro seems almost bored here; whether it was intentional or not, De Niro was outfitted with a ridiculous, over-the-top hair style reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in 1997’s Wag the Dog. If it wasn’t for the hair, De Niro would leave little-to-no impact on this film. At times, De Niro looks distracted or inconvenienced by having to spout lines, almost as though he can’t wait for director David Grovic to call ‘cut’ so he can go back to playing Flappy Bird on his iPhone.
To its credit, The Bag Man does succeed at times in delivering witty, crafty one-liners, showing brief glimpses of its potential. Sadly, the script doesn’t deliver these lines confidently, burying them in the middle of bizarre, swiftly punctuated exchanges that don’t allow the lines to breathe. Going back to the Tarantino comparison, the memorable quotes from films like Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction were given full scenes, allowing the actors ample time to chew on the memorable moments. Had The Bag Man gone this route, trimming a few of the film’s more monotonous scenes and replacing them with interactions that highlight the absurdity of the antagonists, it would be a much stronger, more entertaining work.
A film like this needs a hook, and The Bag Man relies on the mysterious contents of the bag to keep interest high through the flagging action sequences and dull conversations. The problem with this approach is that with this type of film, there is only ever going to be one item in such a bag, and even audiences slower on the uptake will guess what’s in the bag well before the anticlimactic reveal towards the end of the film.
Sadly, The Bag Man is not going to leave very many audiences satisfied. The film suffers by failing to make bold moves; if it were a darker film, or a quirkier film, or a more clever film, if it had chosen a direction and stuck with it, it might have snagged my attention. As it stands, the film will probably only appeal to a few Cusack loyalists, and even they may struggle to find much of value here.