THE BAG MAN isn't obviously inspired by PULP FICTION, but it comes close. It is a tale about aggressively quirky characters trading offbeat dialogue between scenes of unflinching violence in a convoluted plot that centers around a special bag into which no one may peek. The man in charge of the bag is Jack (John Cusak riding the same facial expression for most of the film), and he is given the assignment by his long-time boss, Dragna (Robert Deniro playing it oddly low-key for a character with a silver pompadour and a name like Dragna). Jack is to stay with the bag in the 13th room of a creepy-deepy motel and wait for Dragna to come and get it. The assignment turns out to be much harder than that, with everyone getting in on the action, including the wheelchair bound manager of the hotel (Crispin Glover), a couple of hard-nosed cops, and a hooker (with a heart of gold?) named Rivka.
The plot moves forward with our MacGuffin deluxe being the mysterious bag (fun drinking game: count how many times the phrase "Did you look in the bag?" is asked), but really what keeps things moving (even if it's just running in place) is Rivka being constantly beaten or threatened. In fact, every bad guy in this film is very clearly established solely by their willingness to hit a woman, including Rivka's pimps, a black guy with an eye patch and a Serb-Croat midget. Naturally.
Technically, the film fails right off the bat because it is filmed with a noir-style darkness, but without allowing any kind of contrast to most scenes, making it near impossible to tell exactly what's going on at any given moment. Fortunately (or not), not a whole lot goes on, as evidenced by the dialogue, which is repetitive to the point of distraction. I assume it was meant to be a stylistic choice -- having characters repeat each other and themselves dozens of times -- but instead of coming across as kooky or stylized or even just amusing, it sounds like the script has no idea where to go next.
"Did you look in the bag?"
"Did you look in the bag?!"
"No. Did you look in the bag?"
"Are you asking me if I looked in the bag?"
"No, I didn't look in the bag."
"Why didn't you look in the bag?"
"Why didn't YOU look in the bag?"
And so on.
Wasting time and direction that could be used to establish back story or personality, the movie instead spends most of its energy trying to craft a mood that is too sleazy to be clever and too self-aware to be amusing. Or maybe I have that backwards. In any case, when the movie DOES need to hint at a reason for all of its lunacy, it does so with no grace at all, characters announcing their various emotional calling cards, be it a dead wife or whatnot, often doing it with contrived attempts at wittiness that are, fundamentally, pointless. "I'm a connoisseur of the unexpected, but I hate surprises," says Dragna. "Just because something is inevitable doesn't mean it has to happen," says another character. Or they say something like that. I was laughing too hard to write the whole thing down.
I'd give the film one star if I hadn't at least been amused by the intensely understated performances by Cusak and Deniro, and I still got a bit of joy out of watching the derivative script clump along so handily. Still, this isn't a movie that is bound to be enjoyed by many people. First time writer/director David Grovic may have a decent movie in him in the future, but in this case, he leaned too much on his love of Tarantino to come up with anything other than a pale imitation of Tarantino's earliest style, like he was trying to mash-up Cusak's GROSSE POINTE BLANK with Cusak's IDENTITY, creating a film that is a sorry soup of the weakest bits of both of those films.