Written by David Grovic and Paul Conway
Directed by David Grovic
There was a time when seeing the involvement of either John Cusack or Robert De Niro would lend a hefty amount of prestige to any project, so the idea of both men appearing in the same film, circa the mid-1990s, perhaps, would portend a particularly exciting picture indeed. Sadly, we’re a long way from the mid-1990s, yet the new film The Bag Man, which stars both Cusack and De Niro, does inspire a moderate level of intrigue regarding these A-Listers. Specifically, it’s almost impossible to not wonder why, exactly, either man signed onto this middling, claustrophobically minded project. Even now, even after both of these generational icons have starred in a number of would-be direct-to-DVD cheapies, you have to wonder if they need the money this badly.
To its credit, The Bag Man has a surprisingly simple plot: Cusack is Jack, who works for Dragna (De Niro), a mobster who tells Jack to retrieve a bag and wait in a nearby motel before he arrives to accept his package. All Jack has to do is make sure no one stops him from this seemingly menial task, and that he never, ever looks in the bag. And even though, of course, picking up a bag and waiting to hand it off to someone isn’t nearly as simple as Jack would like, The Bag Man feels like it’s killing time well before the end of its 108 minutes. The seedy motel where Jack is staying is run by a strict and quirky hotel manager (Crispin Glover, who now seems more reminiscent of a low-rent Steve Zahn) who gets nosy quickly; also, there’s a comely prostitute, Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), who Jack ends up fancying, which gets him in deep with her pimps (Sticky Fingaz and Martin Klebba), not to mention the ominous local sheriff (Dominic Purcell) and his cronies.
Aside from wondering what, exactly, is in the bag (and though it functions mostly as a 2014 version of the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction, we do discover its contents by the end), and why Jack can’t ever sneak a peek at it, the most entertaining thing about The Bag Man is Robert De Niro’s impressive pompadour of a haircut. Dragna is, by and large, a character who’s more laughable than funny; in a late-stage monologue, he invokes the TV show Full House, which is less humorous because of the family-friendly juxtaposition in a crime thriller, and more because hearing Robert De Niro extol the virtues of Full House is just ridiculous. As is the pompadour, which always seems primed to fly off his head and into the dark sky to migrate with the rest of its flock.
Mostly, The Bag Man feels like a short film that was forced into feature length. Once Jack begins his tentative and, at first, unwilling romance with the blonde hooker Rivka next door, the conflict shifts entirely. (De Niro, outside of two short scenes in the first half-hour, only appears in the third act.) Here, the film is something of a slog, as we watch a seemingly helpless woman get thrown around by a series of Neanderthals, an unpleasant sight in general that feels fairly punishing here. (De Niro’s second scene, in fact, centers around him smacking around a woman; this exists mostly so the screenwriters can make it absolutely clear that he’s a bad, bad dude, but it’s totally unnecessary and somewhat vile.) Jack is, of course, a noble if bland hero, but his status as Rivka’s savior doesn’t eliminate the scenes of the violence done against her.
It should come as no shock that both John Cusack and Robert De Niro have been in far better films than The Bag Man. Cusack, in particular, has trod similar ground before, stalking around a dark, grimy motel in the middle of nowhere while crimes erupt in his peripheral vision: as goofy as its third act may be, the 2003 thriller Identity is at least more playful and menacing than this. Either Jack is super low-key, or Cusack’s just about phoning it in here. De Niro’s not much better, but he at least is given something remotely close to a personality in his few scenes. The actual mystery of, to paraphrase a desperate Brad Pitt in Se7en, what’s in the bag is nearly moot, considering how quickly director and co-writer David Grovic tries to sidestep the issue of said bag for an equally forgettable noirish morass. Maybe one day soon, movies like The Bag Man will be a footnote for Cusack and De Niro; maybe they’ll revitalize their careers in the years to come, but not with something like this.
— Josh Spiegel