John Cusack and Robert De Niro have spent so much swimming at the bottom it was inevitable they'd bump into one another. At least De Niro occasionally pops his head up to remind us how great he can be when given the proper motivation, but Cusack has taken the likable hangdog persona we love him for and frittered it away in one lousy thriller after another, and The Bag Man is just the latest. A cheapie neo-noir that seems to be inspired by Tarantino and Lynch, the film boasts a small army of bizarre characters tediously buzzing around one giant MacGuffin in a duffle bag, but we're never really given a reason to care about what's inside. Kind of sums up The Bag Man in a nutshell, really.
The film opens promisingly enough; with a conversation between De Niro and Cusack that makes up in tension what it lacks in wit. De Niro, sporting a ridiculous pomp of hair that would have been more fitting in American Hustle, is Dragna, an old school crime boss; while Cusack is Jack, his seemingly-reliable hit man. Cusack's clearly riffing on his old Grosse Pointe Blank deal here, and at least initially it works. We see him, recognize the role, and immediately hope the best for Jack....and by extension for the film as a whole. But that expectation and hopefulness soon becomes deadweight when the reality of just how mediocre The Bag Man is in every way. Dragna approaches Jack with a simple task: pick up a duffle bag, take it to this really shoddy motel (the film's original title was Motel), and wait for further orders. Simple enough, right? The only rule is that nobody is to open the bag. Period. The script co-written by director David Grovic banks everything on our supposed interest about the bag's contents, but wizened filmgoers know it doesn't matter. A MacGuffin can be spotted from ten miles away, and merely having other characters show an interest in the bag isn't enough to carry this leaden plot.
Jack immediately enters the orbit of a crew of weirdoes hoping to steal the bag from him, including the guy Dragna hired to give him the bag in the first place. Injured, Jack holes up in the motel where he runs into a one-eyed pimp caricature played by Sticky Fingaz, and a midget with a bad attitude. Actually, give the little guy some credit because he does get the film's one intentional laugh in a scene where he urinates all over Jack's face. It wouldn't be funny anywhere else but standards need to be lower here. He also encounters Rivak (Rebecca De Costa, the film's actual co-star), a femme fatale whose motivations are never clear, even to Jack who for some reason keeps letting her hang around. Crispin Glover adds to his resume of oddball characters as the motel's over-eager, detail-obsessed manager. It's actually quite the fun little role playing up to Glover's quirky strengths, but it's sorely underwritten and lacking in screen time. The same can be said of De Niro, who seems to recognize what a sleazeball film he's in and makes the most of every opportunity to mug for the camera. In one inexplicable scene, Dragna bashes a woman's face in just to give her a plastic surgeon recommendation. Yeah, the film is not only dark and lacking in any narrative momentum, but it's also more than a little misogynistic. In another scene, Rivka is nearly gang raped by a bunch of crooked local cops (led by Dominic Purcell) because....well, because they're crooked. It also reeks vaguely of a film that is struggling to pad out its 100 minute runtime, but there simply isn't enough of a story there.
While we may have the best time hanging with De Niro, it's the flat back-and-forth between Cusack and De Costa we're forced to endure the longest. Cusack is especially sleepy and uninspired, while Da Costa breathlessly tries to find reason for her character to exist. For his debut feature, Grovic's muddy direction fits the dank and nasty atmosphere. You'll feel like a shower is needed afterwards, that's for sure. The Bag Man doesn't offer much else, but it does make you wonder how John Cusack could have fallen so far.