Neon lights streak by as an ambulance hurls through New York City's Hell's Kitchen. A pregnant hooker, crazed alcoholics, dazed dopeheads and wizened street people line the sidewalks. Goldfish flop on a stretch of carpet near a bleeding murder victim. Fireworks explode over the head of a drug dealer who's impaled on a railing but still cracking wise. And finally, burned-out paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) relaxes into the arms of a loved one.
These are just a few of the artfully captured images -- as intense, starkly beautiful and resonant as any previously given to us by celebrated director Martin Scorsese -- that litter "Bringing Out the Dead." It's an unpretentious, underhyped treat, part surreal adrenaline rush and part dark night of the soul, that details Pierce's anguished descent into his own personal Hades during three long, bloody nights on the job.
Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader (collaborators on "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ") have pared away the excess fat and religious symbolism of Joe Connelly's acclaimed debut novel in favor of a story that burrows deep into the head of the sensitive, frazzled ambulance worker.
Increasingly reliant on alcohol to heal his emotional pain, Pierce is plagued by visions of Rose (Cynthia Roman), an 18-year-old girl who died despite his best efforts at resuscitation. He sees her face everywhere he looks, and eventually believes that he's hearing her voice as it begs for help.
"Bringing Out the Dead" is shot through with gallows humor and edgy, risky performances by everyone except a strangely detached Patricia Arquette. On occasion, it's reminiscent of Scorsese's 1985 "After Hours," the tale of a disturbing comic journey around late-night New York that's undertaken by one very unfortunate yuppie. In "Dead," Pierce is likewise embroiled in a series of encounters that grow increasingly more absurd.
Scorsese (who makes an uncredited cameo as the fast-talking voice of a particularly pushy dispatcher), hinges his three acts on the arrivals and departures of a trio of Pierce's partners. Larry (John Goodman) deals with the surrounding chaos and human decay by blocking it out and instead focusing on the evening's food raid. Marcus (Ving Rhames) is a Jesus-preaching slickster who's so giddy over his role in delivering a baby that he causes the ambulance to crash. The crazed Tom (Tom Sizemore) craves gory action -- the thrill of the kill -- and metes out brutal punishment to a mentally disturbed homeless man named Noel (Latin pop star Marc Anthony).
Pierce, meanwhile, sinks deeper and deeper into his own torment, first celebrating the apparent rescue of elderly heart-attack victim Mr. Burke (Cullen Oliver Johnson) and later attempting to ward off visions of the same man, who he sees cursing him for denying a suffering spirit the chance to slip out of its body and into eternity. Nearing self-destruction, the paramedic expresses his bitterness about the endless cycle of death to Burke's daughter, Mary (Arquette): "The city doesn't discriminate" he proclaims. "It gets everybody. We're all dying."
But when Pierce stretches out his hand to reach the imagined bodies of those he couldn't save, we suspect that old-fashioned redemption may be down the road, if not right around the corner. Secular salvation, after all, is Scorsese's mission, and he's once again arrived on the scene in the nick of time.