“The Bag Man” takes the term “film noir” a bit too literally. In its effort to evoke — or perhaps to parody — the style of mid-century crime thriller characterized by whiskey-swilling antiheroes, femmes fatales and, most important, dramatic fog and shadows, the debut of filmmaker David Grovic is almost unwatchably dim for much of its overlong duration. Set mainly in a seedy, neon-lit Louisiana motel in the middle of the night, “The Bag Man” is notable for the number of sequences shot in near total blackness. I was actually grateful for one scene illuminated by a single match (the blindingly bright candle apparently having been taken into another room by one of the characters).
The simple-minded premise places mob henchman Jack (John Cusack), unluckily enough, in Room 13 of said motel, where he must await the arrival of his boss, Dragna (Robert De Niro), who has ordered Jack to bring him a mysterious black satchel that Jack has been sworn, on pain of death, not to open. While Jack’s on the job, the bodies of those who stand athwart his mission — including a Serbian-Roma dwarf (Martin Klebba), a one-eye pimp (rapper/actor Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones) and a vaguely Cajun-sounding front desk clerk who uses a wheelchair but doesn’t need one (Crispin Glover) — start piling up.
When he’s not killing people, Jack passes the time by getting to know Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), a 6-foot-tall hooker in a blue wig who claims to be from Israel and speaks with a Portuguese accent. The self-conscious affectation of the film would be funny, were it not so smug.
There isn’t much to be self-satisfied about. The acting is okay, particularly by De Niro, who wears his hair styled into a preposterous pompadour and whose gangster character describes himself as a failed academic, dropping references to Hermann Hesse’s “Magister Ludi” and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” Although the film seems to think it’s following in the footsteps of Jim Jarmusch’s brainier, more substantial, yet no less stylish “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” it’s hampered by Grovic’s tin ear for dialogue and ham-handed approach to plotting.
Ultimately, most of what happens in “The Bag Man” is a setup, courtesy of Dragna, but that doesn’t let Grovic off the hook for a story that feels like it’s being related inside ironic air quotes. Even the film’s justification for Jack’s reliance on phone booths and motel landlines — the result of his cellphone being shot out of his hand before the film even starts — feels forced. It’s as if Grovic is trying to explain away the atmosphere of stale cliche as an aesthetic decision.
It may well be one. But “The Bag Man” has more attitude than panache. Yes, we eventually get to see what’s in the bag. But by the time its contents are revealed, you may no longer care.
R. At the AMC Hoffman Center. Contains violence, obscenity and torture. 110 minutes.