The first sign there is something seriously wrong with “The Bag Man” is the poster. In the same size font, we see the names of the film’s three stars: John Cusack, Rebecca Da Costa, and Robert De Niro. Equal billing for Cusack, De Niro, and … Da Costa? Who is Rebecca De Costa? Why is her name given equal status? And for that matter, why does De Niro look like Bernie Madoff playing Robert Evans, or vice versa? And why does Cusack look more like Richard Nixon here than he did playing Nixon in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”? And what to make of the writing underneath the title “The Bag Man”? It reads: “THE CAT’S IN THE BAG,” followed by “INSPIRED BY THE STORY ‘THE CAT’ BY MARIE-LOUISE VON FRANZ”? What the hell is happening here?!
The movie itself is equally confounding and wildly off-putting. It is, I think, quite possibly the worst film in De Niro’s career—not De Niro’s worst performance, mind you; he is only in about one-third of “The Bag Man,” and is hardly to blame for the awfulness. But of all De Niro’s many, many missteps, this film, I think, is the most cynically empty. There is nothing here. Director David Grovic’s debut film (his IMDb page lists two acting jobs and a producing credit) is ugly, misogynistic, boring, and deliriously grim. Has De Niro ever appeared in a project quite like this? I don’t believe so. Okay, apparently he did something in 2012 called “Freelancers” with 50 Cent, a film that also starred … David Grovic. And yes, there is “Hide and Seek” and “Righteous Kill” and “Godsend.” But nothing tops “The Bag Man.” It’s a new low for the great actor, as well as the increasingly worrisome Cusack.
The film opens with the two heavy-hitters, De Niro and Cusack, onscreen together. This is hardly the “Heat” De Niro-Pacino coffee shop sit-down, but it is smart to give the impression that this is a starry affair. De Niro is Dragna, a wizened gangster, while Cusack is Jack, a reliable hit-man. (We’re a looooong way from “Grosse Pointe Blank.”) Jack’s task as explained by Dragna is simple: “Get the bag and bring it to me.” To be more specific, Jack is to get the bag, head to a sleazy motel, and wait for instruction. We cut to Jack after he has snagged the bag, been shot, and has killed someone; the body is in his car. At least, I think that’s what happened. That’s how Jack describes it. For some inexplicable reason, we do not actually see the incident. (Budget issues? Bobby does not come cheap, after all.)
“I’m telling you your man tried to whack me, and you still want me to go to this shitty motel in the middle of nowhere and wait for you all night?!” asks Cusack, dressed in a black suit and baseball hat, like Steve Madden-as-interpreted-by-“The Wolf of Wall Street” at a wake. “Oh yes,” mutters Dragna, as a musical score Dick Wolf would consider too overblown for “Law & Order” blasts away. Soon Cusack arrives at the motel, helpfully run by Crispin Glover’s Ned—with an accent! (“Ah need ya to fill out this cahd.”) The hotel’s denizens include a caricature pimp who is aided by a tracksuit-clad little person, as well as our second-billed star, Rebecca Da Costa’s Rivka. When we first spot Rivka, her outfit is very Party City Halloween hooker: blue hair, red top, gold skirt.
Yes, it’s a colorful bunch amid the motel’s blinking neon lights. Rivka hides out in Jack’s room, finding the hidden-under-the-bed bag and adding to Jack’s upset. Dragna is playing coy over the phone—“Seems like you should be on Prozac,” he tells Jack, in a line tailor-made for the 1990s—but why wouldn’t he? He has business to attend to, which includes a scene of him punching a woman in the face and breaking her nose, after giving her the number of a plastic surgeon. This scene is seemingly meant to show the depths of Dragna’s evil, perhaps Grovic’s version of “The Long Goodbye” and its terrifying Marty Augustine sequence, in which the gangster suddenly smashes a bottle in a woman’s face. In Altman’s hands, such an action was chilling. In “The Bag Man,” it is an ugly sequence emblematic of an ugly film.
As the film progresses, Cusack waits, “saves” Rivka from the pimp (who helpfully describes her as “about six foot, walking around looking like Wonder Woman and shit”), waits a bit longer, incurs the wrath of Ned (“Ya shouldna done that, Mr. Smith. No one touches mah wheelchair—it belonged to mah dead mother”), and incurs the wrath of good-ol-boy cops. The latter encounter leads to a horrific attempted rape that seals the deal: “The Bag Man” is utter misogynistic tripe. It all culminates in the actual arrival of Dragna to the motel, and a line of dialogue I would expect De Niro never thought he would utter, on camera, at least: “One day I was watching an episode of ‘Full House’ where Jesse goes bungee jumping with Becky. Changed my whole life.”
The makers of “The Bag Man” believes having Dragna drop the occasional “off-beat” reference—“Full House,” Herman Hesse, Miles Davis, “The Art of War,” Lenny Bruce—makes for a colorful, well-rounded character. It does not. Having Cusack’s Jack stomp around angrily and be described as “a killing machine” who lost his wife does not make Jack colorful, either. Rivka … Well, Rivka at least has a bit of a back story. But it does not help. Nothing helps. And notice I have not mentioned the bag in awhile. Who cares? For “The Bag Man” is, in final analysis, truly disheartening. Watch Cusack and you will see the face of an actor who knows how bad this is, and who must be aware of how far he has fallen. If only he could see the face of the viewer. [F]