Just a couple of days before I watched The Bag Man, my brother and I had been joking about how it seems like Robert De Niro makes at least five bad films for every good one. In recent years, the two-time Oscar winner has been just as likely to star in a Best Picture nominee like Silver Linings Playbook as he is to make an appearance in the critically panned Grudge Match, The Family, The Big Wedding, or New Year’s Eve. I was optimistic about The Bag Man, though. I figured that because it’s a low budget indie, De Niro--who plays the film’s main antagonist, crime boss Dragna--must be in it for more than the paycheck.
...Yeah, I was wrong.
The crime thriller has an interesting enough premise, but the characters are totally one-dimensional and the writing is incredibly clichéd. John Cusack stars as Jack, a criminal hired by Dragna to pick up a mysterious bag and then bring it to a motel, where he must wait for his boss’s arrival. We don’t know the bag’s contents, as Jack has been explicitly instructed not to look inside. Soon after arriving at the motel, he crosses paths with Rivka, a former prostitute (Rebecca Da Costa). The two form an unlikely partnership and rely on one another to survive as their presence at the motel draws suspicion from the police.
The film’s biggest mistake is that it takes itself much too seriously. It assumes we care about the characters without giving us any real reason to. We know Jack has a criminal history, but know nothing about his redeeming qualities. We’re told Rivka has a dark past, but we aren’t given any details about it. So why should we feel for these characters? The film is almost two hours long, and Jack is onscreen for practically all of it, but by the end I still didn’t feel like I knew him at all. Dragna is supposed to be frightening, but his lines are often so silly he seems more like a cartoon villain than anything else. For example, he explains to Jack that he was inspired to give up his plans to pursue a career in academia and become a mobster after watching an episode of Full House… unfortunately, it doesn’t sound any less ridiculous coming out of De Niro’s mouth than it does here. The highlight of the film is probably Crispin Glover as Ned, the motel’s creepy manager who grows suspicious of Jack and Rivka. Glover has mastered the art of playing the oddball so well that he can make even the most absurd dialogue sound totally natural.
Rebecca Da Costa--still an up and comer--definitely has potential as an actress, but this film doesn’t give her any opportunities to showcase her talent. And why seasoned actors like Cusack and De Niro would take part in a film so mediocre with a script so amateurish is a total mystery to me. What a waste of such a talented cast.