MORE THAN 20 years after "Taxi Driver," Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader have pulled us back into hell with "Bringing Out the Dead." But this time, the movie -- a grim but glorious experience -- is on the side of the angels. After all, Scorsese and Schrader are 20 years older.
In the 1976 "Taxi Driver," New York City was a sort of hell on earth, where the cursed and the damned (most of them working girls) plodded the sidewalks in slow motion amid Stygian plumes of street steam.
The central figure was Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam vet turned cab driver with unfocused rage whose eventual response to this flood tide of human misery was gun violence.
Back then, Travis's blood-soaked redemption (he was "saving" an underage hooker from her pimp) made cynical sense. But since then, in the wake of Oklahoma City and Columbine, the crazy gunman has become an ignoble banality. And in "Bringing Out the Dead," based on Joe Connelly's novel, the real heroes are the ones who clean up after the likes of Travis.
The film's central figure, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) drives an ambulance. He's pulling round-the-clock duty, speeding down the blurry streets of New York, sirens screaming, eyes swollen with insomnia, as he tries to save the wounded, the dying and the drunk. Unlike Travis, he's looking to save the cursed souls of Gotham, not take them out in a shooting spree.
The movie follows Frank over the course of two days and three nights on the job, as he rides with various partners -- the quiet but amusing Larry (John Goodman), the hyper, preacher-cadenced Marcus (Ving Rhames) and the clearly psychotic Walls (Tom Sizemore).
They're all burnout cases in uniform, fueled by caffeine, cynical humor and the momentum of their work shifts. The graveyard humor is their only antidote to a hopeless situation: They seem to be doing little more than piling up patients at the door of Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy hospital.
On any given night, the gurneys are filled with drug addicts, winos, homeless people and bullet victims. The doctors are too overworked to help anyone. The receiving nurses look for ways to get rid of patients rather than admit them. No one is cured, it seems, only rejected.
They are forever picking up repeat offenders like the mentally addled Noel (Marc Anthony), who seems to be addicted to injury as he lies stabbed or unconscious yet again on the street. After he's admitted to the emergency room, he breaks out, only to return the following night, bleeding from his latest misadventure. Walls swears he's going to kill him.
To make a depressing situation worse, Frank feels jinxed. He can't remember the last time he actually saved someone's life. And everywhere he looks lately, he sees the ghostly face of a girl he recently failed to save. Is he an agent of salvation or death? He can't sleep. His supervisor refuses to fire him until there's more help. Frank is doomed to keep working with the lost souls of Gotham.
When he's called to a cardiac arrest case and brings the victim back to life, however, he feels a flicker of hope. He feels something even finer for Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of the man he brought back to life.
Fate seems to bring these two together repeatedly, as Mary's father continues to linger at the threshold of death. While Mary waits for news of her father, Frank becomes increasingly protective. Something inside his emotionally debilitated soul is reaching out to embrace her.
But this is just the beginning of many fascinating narrative strands: Just who is Mary? And what is her strange connection with Cy Coates (Cliff Curtis), who is either a dangerous drug dealer or an herbalist? Is Frank beginning to hear voices? Did Mary's father just ask him to pull the plug?
Before he finds the grace he seeks, Frank will probe every darkened corner of this concrete Hades. And if you enjoy redemptions drenched in rhapsodic agony, religious mysticism and the bloody ick of emergency room chaos, that journey will be bliss for you.
BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (R, 121 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, profanity, violence, nudity, sexual scenes and overall emotional intensity. Area theaters.