Bringing Out The Dead

USA 1999

Reviewed by Kevin Jackson


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

New York City, the early 90s. Frank Pierce, an ambulance driver who works the graveyard shift, is close to cracking up. On one mission he revives Mr Burke from a heart attack and rushes him back to the ER at Our Lady of Mercy hospital where he is put on life support. Nonetheless, Frank still feels guilt about the death of Rose, a young woman whose ghostly face he sees everywhere. Like his fellow-drivers - Larry, Marcus and Tom - with whom he works on three successive nights, Frank is enraged by those who use and abuse the service. Frank begins to fall for former drug-user Mary, the daughter of Mr Burke. Frank declares his intention to quit one night after his ambulance crashes. He tries unsuccessfully to get himself fired.

Accompanying Mary to the apartment of Cy, a drug dealer who gives her a powerful drug, Frank follows suit and experiences macabre hallucinations. Back at the ER, Frank seems to hear the disembodied voice of Mr Burke begging Frank to let him die. On another mission, Frank is called to help Cy, who has been impaled on a spiked railing after a rival gang's attack. Later, Frank almost succumbs to the temptation of helping Tom beat up Noel, a local drug casualty, but repents at the last minute. He returns to the ER and, giving in to the ghostly voice, allows Mr Burke to die peacefully. He goes to tell Mary the sad news; she invites him in and cradles him as he drifts towards sleep.


Why, this is hell; we've been here before. The sulphurous visions of nocturnal streets splashed with garish neon and prowled by "whores, skunk pussies, buggers" and other oiks, sneaks and cads; the speed-driven loner who stares at it all with enthralled horror from his roving vehicle as he nurses chronic insomnia and a hypertrophied craving for redemption; the enigmatic young woman, the Beatrice figure, who may both save and be saved - similarities between Taxi Driver (1976) and Bringing Out the Dead are clear beyond reasonable dispute. The only shouting match worth having just now is whether the new film amounts to director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader offering us a rich reworking of their original tragic material from the chastened perspective of maturity, something along the lines of, say, Othello and A Winter's Tale, or sad self-plagiarism.

I'm inclined to agree broadly with David Thompson's contention (S&S December 1999) that the old team's return to familiar turf has produced a very different and, in many respects, very impressive film. Talent aside, much of Taxi Driver's thrilling originality came from the (relative) youthfulness of its makers, and many of its qualities are those found in gifted adolescents: morbidity, introspection, rage, a sense of the world's endemic rottenness and a stubborn refusal of compromise. (A quarter of a century on, the movie still casts a spell on teenagers and on the teenager in grown-ups who should know better.) Taxi Driver also made delicious mock of its otherwise dangerously appealing protagonist, since Travis Bickle, "God's lonely man", is not just a psychopath but a goon: Homer Simpson as imagined by Robert Bresson.

Frank Pierce, the driven driver of Bringing Out the Dead, just isn't like that. Yes, he's a profoundly troubled man, worn raw by the violence and stress of his job, but he's a good man. And that simple fact may be the very thing that will disappoint some viewers, since one of the most telling differences between the two films is that Bringing Out the Dead is far less smitten than its precursor with the glamour of being a misunderstood outsider. "No one asked you to suffer," Mary gently rebukes Frank as she cradles him, pietà-fashion, at the end of his dark working nights of the soul. "That was your idea." Her words, which sound less sententious in Patricia Arquette's quiet, bone-weary delivery than in cold print, strike just the right cautionary note of perspective. Frank's martyrdom is at least partly self-elected, as any decent grown-up could have told him.

For all its frequent bloodiness and immaculately crafted frenzies - and some of the film's sequences of ambulances hurtling down the streets are terrifically exciting, all berserk camera angles, cranked-up Clash anthems and spasms of accelerated motion - Bringing Out the Dead is unwontedly tender at the core, closer in some ways to Scorsese's overtly religious films such as The Last Temptation of Christ or even Kundun than to his contemporary thrillers. Nicolas Cage even looks like Christ (like a distressed El Greco painting of Christ that is, not like Willem Dafoe). When the camera dotes intently on his increasingly wan, drawn and bestubbled features on the rare occasions when he laughs or smiles, it's as if his face is quoting somebody else's.

Oddly enough, Frank does have a fair bit to laugh about since Dead is heavily interlarded with chunks of fast-talking gallows humour, some of it provided by the ambulance men's radio banter with their off-screen controllers (spoken by Scorsese himself and Queen Latifah), some of it by the tasteless antics they dream up to sweeten their chores. Ving Rhames (a pure joy every time he's on screen as Marcus, one of Frank's partners) has a wonderful scene in which he coerces a bunch of gawky goths to join hands and pray for their overdosed pal. But all the scenes of medics and drivers at work are finely done - pacey, witty and a sight more convincing than ER.

If Scorsese and Schrader hadn't brought humour and authenticity to bear on this loaded material, it would have been a lot closer to Taxi Driver and so a lot weaker. Their film firmly places Frank's hyperbolic view of Manhattan/hell (every prostitute's face a dead girl's, every underlit alley or stairwell an out-take from The Fisher King) as the distorted vision of stress and drugs and shock and soul-searching. At heart, it seems conceived more in sorrow than in anger, with a hero struggling confusedly towards health rather than towards a convulsive and gratifyingly apocalyptic expression of his sickness. If we persist in finding Scorsese's avenging angels more irresistible than his angels of mercy, that may well be a sign of our unregenerate appetites, not the director's allegedly waning powers. Or, more simply: the devil has all the best goons.


Martin Scorsese
Scott Rudin
Barbara De Fina
Paul Schrader
Based on the novel by Joe Connelly
Director of Photography
Robert Richardson
Thelma Schoonmaker
Production Designer
Dante Ferretti
Elmer Bernstein
©Paramount Pictures Corporation and Touchstone Pictures
Production Companies
Touchstone Pictures and Paramount Pictures present a Scott Rudin- Cappa/De Fina production
Executive Producers
Adam Schroeder
Bruce S. Pustin
Joseph Reidy
Eric Steel
Associate Producers
Jeff Levine
Mark Roybal
Production Supervisor
Shell Hecht
Unit Production Manager
Bruce S. Pustin
Location Managers
Len Murach
Robert T. Striem
Post-production Supervisor
Kendall McCarthy
Assistant Directors
Joseph Reidy
Christopher J. Surgent
Gregory G. Hale
Script Supervisor
Martha Pinson
Ellen Lewis
Marcia DeDonis
Gayle Keller
Camera Operator
Vincent Galindez
Special Visual Effects
Industrial Light & Magic
Visual Effects Supervisor:
Michael Owens
Visual Effects Producers:
Camille Geier
Jill Brooks
Compositing Supervisor:
Jon Alexander
Digital Timing Supervisor:
Kenneth Smith
Digital Artists:
Al Bailey
Stella Bogh
Pat Brennan
Jeff Doran
Kimberly Lashbrook
Tia Marshall
Chad Taylor
Digital Paint & Roto:
Chris Bayz
Deb Fought
Amy Shepard
Visual Effects Co-ordinators:
Susan Greenhow
David Lambert
Visual Effects Editor:
John Bartle
Digital Effects
Cineric Digital
Effects Supervisor:
János Pilenyi
Motion Control Services
Gear & Rose, NYC
Special Effects
Ronald Ottesen
John M. Ottesen
Consulting Editor
James Kwei
Art Director
Robert Guerra
Set Decorator
William F. Reynolds
Costume Designer
Rita Ryack
Wardrobe Supervisors
William A. Campbell
Joanna Brett
Key Artist:
Linda A. Grimes
Jane DiPersio
Special Effects Make-up
Manlio Rocchetti
Key Hairstylist
William Farley
Scott Farley
The Picture Mill
Cineric Inc
Orchestra Conductor
Elmer Bernstein
Emilie Bernstein
Executive in Charge of Music, Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group
Kathy Nelson
Music Editors
Kathy Durning
Bobby Mackston
Score Recordist/Mixer
Dan Wallin
"T.B. Sheets" by/performed by Van Morrison; "You Can't Put Your Arms 'Round a Memory" by/performed by Johnny Thunders; "September of My Years" by Sammy Cahn, James Van Heusen, performed by Frank Sinatra; "Bell Boy" by Pete Townshend, performed by The Who; "Mr. Highway", "Threat" by Elmer Bernstein; "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" by William Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe, performed by R.E.M.; "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" by Stevie Wonder; "Llegaste a mi" by Omar Alfanno, performed by Marc Anthony; "Too Many Fish in the Sea" by Norman J. Whitfield, Edward Holland Jr, performed by The Marvelettes; "So What!" by Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro, Stephen Perkins, Flea, performed by Jane's Addiction; "These Are Days" by Natalie Merchant, Robert Buck, performed by 10,000 Maniacs; "Nowhere to Run" by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Edward Holland Jr, performed by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas; "I and I Survive (Slavery Days)" by Winston Rodney, Philip Fullwood, performed by Burning Spear; "Rivers of Babylon" by Frank Farian, George Reyam, Brent Dowe, James A. McNaughton, performed by The Melodians; "Rang Tang Ding Dong (I Am a Japanese Sandman)" by Alvin Williams, performed by The Cellos; "Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)" by Igor Stravinsky, performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein; "Combination of the Two" by Sam Andrew, performed by Big Brother & The Holding Company; "Hasta ayer" by Manny Delgado, performed by Marc Anthony; "Red, Red Wine" by Neil Diamond, performed by UB40; "Janie Jones", "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." by Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, performed by The Clash
Sound Mixer
James J. Sabat
Re-recording Mixer
Tom Fleischman
Supervising Sound Editor
Philip Stockton
Dialogue Editors
Fred Rosenberg
Laura Civiello
Sound Effects Designer
Eugene Gearty
Loop Group:
Loopers Unlimited
Recording Engineer:
David Boulton
Alex Raspa
Marissa Littlefield
Jennifer Ralston
Marko Costanzo
George A. Lara
Frank Kern
Andy Kris
Ben Cheah
EMS Technical Advisers
Joe Connelly
Susan Callahan
Stunt Co-ordinator
G.A. Aguilar
Nicolas Cage
Frank Pierce
Patricia Arquette
Mary Burke
John Goodman
Ving Rhames
Tom Sizemore
Tom Wolls
Marc Anthony
Mary Beth Hurt
Nurse Constance
Cliff Curtis
Cy Coates
Nestor Serrano
Doctor Hazmat
Aida Turturro
Nurse Crupp
Sonja Sohn
Cynthia Roman
Afemo Omilami
Cullen Oliver Johnson
Mr Burke
Arthur Nascarella
Captain Barney
Martin Scorsese
Julyana Soelistyo
Sister Fetus
Graciela Lecube
Marylouise Burke
neighbor women
Phyllis Somerville
Mrs Burke
Mary Diveny
neighbour woman
Tom Riis Farrell
John Burke
Aleks Shaklin
Leonid Citer
arguing Russians
Jesus A. Del Rosario Jr
man with bloody foot
Larry Fessenden
Bernie Friedman
big feet
Theo Kogan
Fuschia Walker
John Heffernan
Mr Oh
Matthew Maher
Bronson Dudley
Marilyn McDonald
Mr Oh's friends
Ed Jupp Jr
J. Stanford Hoffman
homeless men in waiting room
Rita Norona Schrager
concerned Hispanic aunt
Don Berry
naked man
Mtume Gant
street punk
Michael A. Noto
Omar Sharif Scroggins
voice in crowd
Michael Kenneth Williams
drug dealer
Andrew Davoli
Charlene Hunter
Miss Williams
Jesse Malin
club doorman
Harper Simon
I.B. Bangin'
Joseph Monroe Webb
Jon Abrahams
club bystander
Charis Michelson
I.B.'s girlfriend
Lia Yang
Doctor Milagros
Antone Pagán
arrested man
Melissa Marsala
Bridge & Tunnel girl
Betty Miller
weeping woman
Rosemary Gomez
pregnant Maria
Luis Rodriguez
Sylva Kelegian
Frank Ciornei
Doctor Mishra
Catrina Ganey
Nurse Odette
Jennifer Lane Newman
nurse adviser
John Bal
Raymond Cassar
police in hospital
Tom Cappadona
Jack O'Connell
Randy Foster
Richard Spore
homeless suicidal
James Hanlon
Chris Edwards
Mark Giordano
police sergeant
Michael Mulheren
David Zayas
cops in elevator
Terry Serpico
Brian Smyj
Floyd Resnick
Megan Leigh
David Vasquez
screaming man
Judy Reyes
Joseph Reidy
ICU nurses
Queen Latifah
voice of Dispatcher Love
Buena Vista International (UK)
10,887 feet
120 minutes 58 seconds
SDDS/Dolby digital/Digital DTS sound
In Colour
Prints by
Anamorphic [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011