Direct-to-video movies used to be a last resort for washed-up action stars. But over the past decade, a weird middle class of low-budget movies has appeared. Usually shot in anonymous-looking Louisiana locations for tax incentives, these films feature name actors who often still get big-studio work, and they don’t go directly to DVD. But they do tend to receive cursory, contractually obligated theatrical releases before slinking off to disc a few weeks later.
These movies favor mechanical titles like Seeking Justice (starring Nic Cage), Killing Season (John Travolta and Robert De Niro) or The Frozen Ground. (Cage and John Cusack). Now comes The Bag Man a willfully bizarre entry in the cheap Louisiana thriller subgenre. Turning its limitations into a flourish, it mostly takes place in and around a creepy motel, where hitman Jack Smith (Cusack) waits to deliver a mysterious duffel bag to powerful crime boss Dragna (De Niro). Instructed not to look in the bag, Jack keeps running into trouble with various weirdoes skulking around the premises. The most consistent source of trouble is Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), possibly a stripper or prostitute, who’s on the run from some bad men.
Like so many women in movies like this, Riyka simultaneously embodies and faces assorted risks. Director and cowriter David Grovic makes this clear in matching the motel’s hellishly cartoony red and blue neon glow with her blue wig and red bustier. Her relationship with Jack is almost immediately monotonous, as they bicker with stagy redundancy, telling each other to “Go away and leave me alone,” over and over.
“Over and over” is a good way to sum up The Bag Man, a movie that runs perilously close to two hours, and uses most of its bad ideas at least twice. When Jack encounters some crooked cops who have their eye on the mystery bag, they call him “Mr. Smith” repeatedly, and De Niro follows suit by saying “Jack” as many times as possible. It’s not the script’s only writerly tic; it also leans hard on self-referentiality. “What an entrance,” De Niro says about himself at one point, while Cusack refers to two broader characters as “cartoon feds,” presumably to preclude the audience from making the same complaint.
Needless to say, both actors can do better. De Niro’s presence in such a project isn’t so surprising. He’s entered his working-actor phase, where he’s equally likely to do a wedding-themed rom-rom, a geriatric Hangover riff or an Oscar-nominated David O. Russell comedy. He should probably avoid scripts that, say, give him smirky Tarantino-knockoff speeches about how he watched an episode of Full House that changed his life, but The Bag Man doesn’t take up much of his time, and he seems to be having fun, at least.
Cusack, though, is an odder case. An unconventional leading man during the ‘80s and ‘90s, he appears at a loss with how to move forward. He’s not entirely ill at ease in The Bag Man, which crosses elements of Grosse Pointe Blank (where he played a hitman) and thrillers like 1408 and Identity (where he was holed up in a hotel for most of the running time), but the movie doesn’t take advantage of his moody wit (the recent Adult World, which received a similarly limited release, gives him much more to work with). Instead, The Bag Man draws attention to its Cusack-appropriate quirkiness by inflicting weirdness upon him: Crispin Glover shows up briefly as a drawling, wheelchair-bound motel clerk, and a little person (Martin Klebba) pees on Cusack and then explains what he’s done.
The Bag Man is only the latest cheap Louisiana thriller to squander a promising cast and a noir-ish premise, but it’s so deliberately strange and off-putting that it raises a question about the subgenre: does anyone making these movies expect anyone else to watch them? Low-budget thrillers with good actors might provide an opportunity for directors to twist generic conventions. Instead, these movies come off like mockups of the real thing. Watching The Bag Man, or The Frozen Ground or Seeking Justice, is like looking at a “coming soon” poster for two hours.