A loony combination tycoon-crime lord-book reader and closet intellectual named Dragna (Robert De Niro) knocks a girl’s teeth out with his fists for no reason, then pays an exorbitant amount of money to a surly bag man (John Cusack), also for no reason, to deliver a mysterious sack to a seedy motel in a Louisiana bayou on the condition that he never opens it to look inside. Thus begins the ponderous, pointless and pretentious nonthriller The Bag Man. It takes just under two hours of tedium before you find out what’s in the bag, and you might be sorry you waited.
The Bag Man ★
Written by: David Grovic and Paul Conway
Directed by: David Grovic
Starring: Robert De Niro, Dominic Purcell and Rebecca Da Costa
Running time: 108 min.
The bodies pile up before the bag man, known only as Jack, ever checks into Room 13, his privacy invaded by a succession of freaks—a demented motel manager in a wheelchair, a bald man looking for a corkscrew, a prostitute with a blue wig in red high heels called Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), a Serbian midget, a black crystal meth dealer with a patch over one eye, and a sadistic sheriff and his homicidal deputy who specialize in hanging up their victims and torturing them to death. They all have one thing in common: They want to kill the bag man and steal his bag. In the ensuing violence, bones break, two heads are severed, and much havoc is wrought by an assortment of guns, knives, shovels and a script that is as contrived as it is incomprehensible. The bag man and the scantily clad babe kill everyone in the movie, including the cops. All that’s left is to figure out why. This is not easy, because the whole thing takes place in the dark, and you can’t see what’s going on anyway. It may be the mark of a bad director, but in this case, it’s also a blessing in disguise, since the movie doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Nobody is who she seems. Rivka, for example, is not a prostitute at all. She’s a tough Israeli adventuress who works for Dragna. Would I make this up? Dragna finally shows up and starts quoting from Hermann Hesse’s 1946 novel, Magister Ludi, which translates as “master of the game.” This is where the movie gets good, because it’s so unintentionally hilarious. Mr. De Niro trying to pronounce “caveat emptor” and “sui generis” is a high-water mark in accidental screen comedy. No spoilers, please, but it seems Dragna considers himself a “master of the game.” The whole movie has been a test. Bring out the machine guns.
The inept direction and ghastly writing are both by David Grovic, based on an earlier script by character actor James Russo. The Bag Man is dead on arrival, but if nothing else, I will never forget Mr. Grovic (and co-writer Paul Conway) delivering into the mouth of Robert De Niro the scene before the final bloody massacre where he praises the bag man for his “Pavlovian loyalty” in a long, rambling and laughable speech, comparing him to “a blacksmith in colonial Williamsburg” and “an aborigine with a boomerang, hunting in the diorama of some national history museum.” Before it wraps, he drags in references to Kojak, Tootsie Pops, Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, the “new drugs” and his master’s degree in transinternational criminal syndicates. He looks like he’s reading from cue cards.
After nearly two hours, Robert De Niro gets the last word: “My thesis,” he brags, “was about the relationship between the Yakuza and the ultra nationalist, right-wing politics in postwar Japan. Seriously. I was going to be a professor.” Better that he became a specialist in bad acting.