The pre-title sequence provides the set-up. On a plane, Dragna (Robert DeNiro) explains to Jack (John Cusack) how the deal is going to go down, it’s simple: Get a bag, wait for me in a motel, and I’ll pay you an exorbitant amount of money. His caveat: Do not look in the bag. The bag is off-limits.
But in nervy neo-noirs like The Bag Man, things are never as easy as they seem. Thankfully, writer/director David Grovnic, making his film debut, keeps the action in this violent thriller taut. Working from a screenplay by actor James Russo (who was inspired by a story called “The Cat” by Marie-Louise von Franz), this film references other thrillers, from Identity, which starred Cusack, to the old chestnut Night Must Fall.
Most of the action unfolds at a seedy motel where a bleeding Jack holes up waiting for Dragna. He wants to be left alone, but Jack soon becomes embroiled in some drama. Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa) is a hooker in a blue wig who is trying to escape from the eye-patch wearing Lizard (Sticky Fingaz) and the Serbian-Roma midget, Guano (Martin Klebba). She sticks her nose in Jack’s business and thereby sets off a series of reversals of fortune for the characters. Likewise, episodes involving the motel’s wheelchair-bound receptionist Ned (Crispin Glover) and the local police, lead by Larson (Dominic Purcell) complicate what should be an easy plan. Before long, the body count reaches double digits.
The Bag Man may strain credibility as the characters get shot, beaten, tortured, injured in the head, handcuffed, and more over the course of the story. How some of them survive the abuse they suffer may take viewers out of the film. But realism is not necessarily the point here. What is important is to let things unfold and recalibrate each character’s motivation and determination with every turn of events. Part of the film’s fun is seeing characters reassess—and sometimes even realign-their allegiances based on each new twist.
Also part of the fun in a noir like this is watching the token femme fatale seduce the weak men. Wisely, the sexual tension between Rivka and Jack percolates without ever going to far into contrived romance. These two main characters need the other, but the question hangs: Can they trust one another? Viewers will be guessing until the final reveal.
Grovnic coaxes a flinty performance out of De Costa, who steals the film with her va-va-va-voom looks and her vulnerability. She holds her own against Cusack who subtly underplays here. The actor is impressive as a man who is always thinking three steps ahead, even though one of those thoughts is he may end up dead.
In support, DeNiro has only a few scenes, but he is incredibly menacing in them. His violent outburst on his daughter who wronged him is shocking, and his line about an episode of the TV show Full House is deliciously unexpected. DeNiro could have played Dragna in his sleep, but he really delivers here.
The Bag Man is all the better for it.
The Bag Man opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.