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Ebiri on The Bag Man: Whatever You Do, Don’t Look Inside

A wan little neo-noir whose intricacies inspire more tedium than suspense, The Bag Man is a good example of how to waste a solid cast. It opens promisingly enough, inside a private airplane, as mob boss Dragna (Robert De Niro, making good use of Jeremy Renner’s hair from American Hustle) instructs a minion named Jack (John Cusack) to pick up a mysterious bag and deliver it to him in a motel, in exchange for a boatload of money. Their back-and-forth isn’t exactly witty, but it’s at least intriguing: “Can I ask you a question: Why don’t you just hire Fed Ex?” Jack asks. “'Cause I’m hiring you, Jack,” says Dragna. Again and again they go over it, the simplicity of the task belying the mysteriousness of the demand. At one point, Dragna uses two pieces of bloody steak on his plate (Jack and Dragna), a spear of broccoli (the money), and a piece of potato (the bag) to diagram the straightforwardness of his request. Dragna’s only other stipulation — his one iron-clad, absolutely-by-no-means-are-you-to-do-this demand — is that Jack must never, ever look inside the bag.

The next thing, we see Jack driving up to a phone booth on a dark highway to call Dragna to inform him that there’s been a little problem: Another of Dragna’s minions has wounded Jack in the course of retrieving the bag, and the whole enterprise appears to be collapsing. Never no mind, Dragna says. Stick to the plan. Go to the seedy motel, find Room 13, and wait for me. “You didn’t look in the bag, did you?”

What’s going on here? Who are these people? And, to quote Robert De Niro himself in Ronin, “What’s in the bag?”

Unfortunately, none of that seems to matter much, as The Bag Man mostly involves Jack attempting to keep a variety of weirdoes and goons away from the bag while he holes out in Room 13 of a sleazy motel and slowly falls for a strikingly willowy prostitute (played by Brazilian model Rebecca Da Costa). The interactions don’t amount to much — save for a couple of funny scenes involving Crispin Glover, bringing some welcome demented energy to the part of the motel’s hilariously by-the-book desk clerk. And despite that siege scenario, there’s no tension created — partly because the story hasn’t given us any character development to work with, and partly because Cusack himself doesn’t seem interested in giving Jack anything resembling dimension. How strange, for an actor who once oozed charm in even the most disposable flicks, to find himself unable to make us care for a guy whom everybody’s trying to kill.

The Bag Man might have worked like some kind of cool, stylized cosmic joke — something out of David Mamet, or early Quentin Tarantino, both filmmakers who seem to have inspired director David Grovic. But the film’s exchanges don’t have the clipped, paranoid elegance of the former, or the rambling, surprising wit of the latter. Instead, The Bag Man is just dark — not just in substance and subject but also in terms of what’s actually onscreen, as if the more blackness we see the more we’ll fill it with our own imagined narrative stakes. Really, it gives us relatively little, and asks for way too much. By the end, we don’t care about what happens to Jack, we don’t care about what happens to the bag, and we eventually even stop caring about what’s inside of it.

Photo: Cinedigm