Early in The Bag Man, Robert De Niro, playing a generic heavy named Dragna (though it constantly sounds like people are calling him Dragnet), has a scene in which he has to intimidate a beautiful young woman, who has made an error that cost Dragna a lot of money. For some reason, the character has been given a huge gray pompadour, and De Niro does his best to let his ridiculous hair do most of the acting, often seeming as if he’d love to turn the entire part over to it and sleepwalk his way through something else. Luckily, the moment actually calls for him to be distracted—Dragna spends most of the scene searching his office for a pad of paper, on which he eventually writes something we don’t see and hands it to the terrified young woman. Then he punches her in the face with all his strength, and informs her, as she lies there sobbing and covered in blood, that the name he wrote down for her is the best plastic surgeon in America, who can give her whatever new nose she wants.
The Bag Man has literally nothing to offer but repugnant exercises in empty, “snappy” sadism like that one. Its nominal story has a professional killer named Jack (John Cusack) agreeing to deliver a small black satchel to Dragna at a designated location—specifically room 13 at a shabby motel in the middle of nowhere. In exchange for some obscene amount of money, Jack agrees not to look inside the bag, and this rule is emphasized repeatedly until even Satan himself emerging from within to destroy the planet would seem like a letdown. In any case, Jack arrives at the motel fairly quickly, and the rest of the movie, in which De Niro barely figures, sees him trying to protect the bag from a series of painfully quirky creeps—a pimp with an eye patch, a Serbian Roma dwarf, Crispin Glover (playing the motel clerk)—and slowly falling in love with a lanky hooker (Brazilian model Rebecca Da Costa) with uncertain loyalties.
With its ostensibly clever dialogue (“I always thought that the number 13 had a one and then a three right after it. But you know, it’s been a while since grade school, so, you know, I could have that wrong,”) and its utterly meaningless violence, The Bag Man plays like a film from the years right after Pulp Fiction, when the indie market was suddenly flooded with quips, guns, and hollow affectation. First-time director David Grovic shoots almost the entire movie in darkness so complete that it crosses the line that divides shadowy noir tension from simple incompetence—often it’s impossible to see what the hell is going on. While the screenplay—based on another screenplay, apparently, which was called Motel—eschews useless backstory, telling us next to nothing about Jack apart from this particular job, it also fails to make the present-tense action signify anything at all. Bereft of characters or purpose, all of the actors flounder, with Da Costa in particular looking constantly confused about what’s expected of her. And when the time finally comes to reveal what’s in the bag, it’s what’s always in the bag (or the box). With that predictable twist, plus Cusack and De Niro, it’s easy to imagine this as a lost film from the ’90s—one that should have stayed lost.