In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, there was a strange influx of independent films, or studio films in the guise of independent aesthetics, that flooded the market, emulating the dialogue stylings of Quentin Tarantino, while perhaps leaning into stranger territory. Films like The Big Empty, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead and Go followed that structure to varying degrees of success and notoriety, but for whatever reasons, economic or creative, those films seemingly disappeared, only occasionally surfacing as meta-films or genre deconstructions. However, these films, for all their various flaws and lapses of logic, were often examples of worlds unlike the world we live in, bizarre in nature but confident in its existence.
In many ways, The Bag Man feels like a return to films of that ilk, soaked in neon and populated with strange, unkempt characters who are rarely alienating in nature. Driven by a unique and warped sense of humor, The Bag Man is not the best film of its kind, but it’s much more enjoyable than one might expect. Granted, the plot of the film is quite familiar, as the film follows a gun-for-hire to act as a courier and protector of a mysterious bag that’s not to be opened, fending off various weirdos whose knowledge of the bag is equally as shrouded in secrecy.
Director David Grovic, who also co-wrote with Paul Conway, based on a screenplay by James Russo (inspired by the story “The Cat” by Marie-Louise von Franz), creates a film that feels structured yet not completely focused, drifting in and out of the world of the surreal on a whim. The script alternates between ridiculously off-the-mark and enjoyable unexpected, with one’s enjoyment of the film usually reliant on how far into the world they’re willing to go. Cinematographer Steve Mason does a superb job of making the world seem a little off, using extreme colors, odd frame composition and heavy shadowing to the film’s advantage. And the score from Tony Morales and Edward Rogers does a good job as setting the film as a Lynchian spin on classic noir tales, even if the material doesn’t completely fit the bill.
However, despite its flaws, The Bag Man succeeds mostly on the power of its strong cast, many of whom feel unrestrained and playful in that unique universe. John Cusack does an excellent job as the protagonist, ostensibly as the only sane man in the film whilst believably adept at being both clever and deadly. Rebecca Da Costa carries her own among the films multiple heavy hitters, which is impressive considering this is her first major English-speaking role. Yet the film is most memorable from its eclectic supporting cast, from a gleefully absurd Robert De Niro to a fantastically meek Crispin Glover to a restrained and intimidating Dominic Purcell, many of whom steal their respective scenes throughout The Bag Man.
Overall, The Bag Man is quite entertaining, never becoming too dull or dumb for its own good and allowing its mystery to unfold naturally. Although there are flaws in bits of dialogue and pacing, especially with what appears to be a rushed and tacked-on ending, the film makes up for it with great performances, a demented sense of humor and an engaging plot progression. The film’s balance between goofy weirdness and intense thrills makes for a unique cinematic experience, and The Bag Man does well to remind audiences that a film can be off-beat and satisfying without reveling in perverse, artificial quirk.
The Bag Man is available on VOD and iTunes, and is currently in select theaters.