Based on a Joe Connelly novel, its easy to see why this subject appealed to Scorsese and Schrader, given their previous collaboration. Through the eyes of burnt-out paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), "Dead" reveals a coarse urban wasteland run amuck with junkies, alcoholics, prostitutes, drug dealers, diseased patients and their apathetic caretakers. Even though the prologue informs, "This story takes place in New York City sometime in the early 1990s," a.k.a. pre-Rudy's Renaissance, this raw view of Manhattan feels hopelessly hackneyed and dated, even if it was Scorsese himself who crafted this original vision twenty-five years ago. Still, this sense of despair and tumult lends itself effectively to helping establish a chaotic, almost hallucinogenic tone, aided by DP Robert Richardson's sharp visuals, regular Thelma Schoonmaker's nimble cutting and a wise soundtrack selection that can best be described as "Motown Punk." Accordingly, this film's look and feel reach a dizzying, maddening level that "Summer of Sam" only sought to achieve.
It's the plot, however, that is wanting. Pierce is burnt-out, haunted by the recurring vision of a young girl who died in his arms, losing a personal inner-struggle after countless patients have expired under his watch. He meets the daughter of a heart-attack victim (Patricia Arquette, Cage's real-life partner) and seems to form some kind of bond with her, though it this is never quite defined. Pierce unsuccessfully attempts to get fired and, at the end of his string, submits to bizarre substance elevation in a new-age drug den oddly contained in a high-rise public housing structure.
None of it really tracks, and, beyond discouraging folks to enroll in the emergency medical tech profession, the film's impact seems rather blunt. It almost works, however, for the diversions &emdash; the visual dazzle and amusing performances by the supporting cast, notably Tom Sizemore and Ving Rhames as Pierce's ambulance cohorts and Afemo Omilami as a sunglassed militant hospital security guard named Griss. Also listen for the voices of Scorsese and Queen Latifah as dispatchers.
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