With director Scorsese and scripter Schrader beating the New York streets again, you'd be forgiven for expecting a Taxi Driver retread. But, despite the subject's potential fatalism, this outing sees an older, wiser duo more concerned with redemption than destruction. In fact, given its tar-black humour and surreal incidents, Bringing Out The Dead has more in common with the nocturnal insanity of Scorsese's After Hours. Yet if After Hours is a vibrant homage to a city which never sleeps, Bringing Out The Dead is a blistered vision of an insomniac metropolis howling at the moon. Episodic and atmospheric, Scorsese's clattering cameras and busy, jittering characters weave a tangled network of emotional incoherence (most of the situations these paramedics are hurled into are so extreme, their reaction buzzes from bewilderment to numbness).
Central to the uneasy ambience is Nicolas Cage, zombified, burnt-out, haggard and hollow, who hunches and judders like a rabid sleepwalker (think Leaving Las Vegas' Ben after electric shock therapy). When he dubs himself a "grief mop", you know that, trapped at the bottom of his spiritual well after absorbing so many fatalities, there are only two possible escape routes: redemption or bust.
But for a movie about death, this is often splutteringly funny. Bombarded by suffering, the characters use humour as both a release and a shield, as dark laughs crack from Frank's chemistry (or lack of it) with his partners.
First on the shift is John Goodman's Larry, who's more concerned about his next meal than answering emergencies. The idea is that Larry's seen so much, the only way he can deal with the trauma is to distance himself, but ultimately it makes him appear underwritten. Things start to destabilise when Marcus - a paramedic Little Richard - arrives on the second shift. Vigorously rendered by Ving Rhames, the graveyard shift veteran provides the funniest scenes (after saving an OD'd goth, he holds an impromptu prayer meeting and then screeches off to "Go watch the hookers"). Last and by no means least is tag `em, bag `em sociopath Tom. Wild-eyed and gnashing, Sizemore is terrific. So it's a shame that his uneasy history with ex-partner Frank is merely explained rather than explored.
The only real weak link here is Patricia Arquette, whose Mary Burke is more comatose than her hospitalised father. Arquette is supposed to provide Cage with the human touch he's craving, yet the offscreen husband and wife completely lack onscreen spark.
If it's sparks you're after, look no further than Scorsese's amazing visuals. By far his most psychedelic offering, the strobing time-lapse and flamboyant framing communicate Frank's hallucin-atory breakdown with brilliant energy. Few film-makers can elicit gasps from visuals alone, and Marty indulges the senses. Indeed, Frank's drug-den oasis trip scene alone is classic Scorsese. After letdowns Casino and Kundun, this is a most welcome return to form.