The titular satchel in “The Bag Man” is one of those coveted carry-ons, like the glowing briefcases of “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Pulp Fiction” fame, which everybody wants, nobody seems to know the contents of, and makes a world of trouble for all who come into contact with it. They include a melancholy widower hitman (John Cusack) and the assorted denizens of a fleabag Louisiana motel in this self-consciously weird postmodern noir that wrests some formidable competition to emerge as one of the most head-scratching money jobs of both Cusack’s and special guest star Robert De Niro’s careers. Despite a decent $14,000 average in its opening frame on two U.S. screens, the future looks bleak for the reportedly self-financed debut feature of British director David Grovic, while the name cast may stimulate modestly better VOD traffic.
Though the script (credited to Grovic and Paul Conway) purports to be based on an unproduced screenplay (“Motel”) by James Russo, “The Bag Man,” with its bayou setting and the presence of De Niro as a criminal mastermind who may (as once character implies) not even be human, frequently suggests an uninspired riff on Alan Parker’s 1987 “Angel Heart,” in which De Niro’s devilish Louis Cyphre hired washed-up private eye Mickey Rourke to track down a missing piece of human collateral. In “The Bag Man,” De Niro’s Dragna (a nod to the famed Los Angeles mafia family) offers Cusack’s Jack “an exorbitant sum of money” to retrieve said bag from said seedy motel — and, of course, whatever he does, never to look inside of it. This early scene unfolds on a private plane, with De Niro failing to turn a piece of undercooked steak into nearly as menacing a prop as Louis Syphre’s iconic hard-boiled egg.
De Niro, who presumably filmed this role before “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” performed much-needed CPR on his acting career, effectively disappears from the movie for most of the next hour, leaving Cusack to fend for himself, including an offscreen scuffle with the bag’s previous guardian that leaves Jack with a bullet hole in his hand and a corpse in his trunk. From there, he proceeds to the motel, where the wheelchair-bound night manager (Crispin Glover, as a kind of deep-fried Norman Bates) asks too many questions and where, no sooner does Jack settle in for the night (in room 13, natch), than trouble literally comes knocking at his door.
Everyone, it seems, wants to get their hands on Jack’s precious pouch, including a meancing bruiser (Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones) and his Serbian dwarf sidekick (Martin Klebba), who may or may not be drug pushers, depending on how much one believes Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), the tall, long-necked beauty of indeterminate origins who holes up in Jack’s bathroom claiming that the other two men are trying to kill her. Reluctant hero and distressed damsel/femme fatale proceed to spend much of the rest of the movie on the run from these and other pursuers (including a pair of incompetent local deputies), always eventually looping back to the motel to attend Dragma’s imminent arrival.
Grovic, who has a scattering of other credits as an actor and producer (and who’s described in the press notes as a distant relative of Sarah Bernhardt) clearly has a thing for people stuck in Beckett-esque nowherevilles, and indeed much of “The Bag Man” feels like an amateur theatrical with lots of verbose run-on monologues, labored quirky humor, and that ever-present bag, the exact contents of which — and how and why they got there — stop tantalizing the viewer long before they’re finally revealed. When De Niro reappears, he proves an unusually erudite talking killer, droning on about lessons learned from reading Sun Tzu and Herman Hesse, before uttering two words that can’t help but feel like a warning to unsuspecting viewers: “caveat emptor.”
Along the way, Grovic tries his hand at a couple of haphazard action sequences, including one three-way battle for control of a speeding car that’s about as hair-raising as the spinning teacup ride at Disneyland. Cusack, who plays almost the entire role from under a baseball cap labeled “Memphis” (though his character is supposed to be from Pittsburgh), seems ever so slightly more present here than he has in his last several movies (including his sleepwalking Richard Nixon in “The Butler”), but it’s only the Brazilian-born Da Costa who seems to be trying to create a real character. Despite being on hand mainly to be manhandled (the film, which includes one scene of De Niro sucker-punching a female associate in the face, evinces a generally deplorable attitude toward women), Da Costa manages to find an emotional truth amid all the film’s moody, abstract poses more often than her more seasoned co-stars.
The pic’s central motel set has been rendered in convincingly cruddy detail (you can all but smell the mold) by production designer J. Dennis Washington, though everything else sports a markedly more shoestring appearance (including an unnecessary New York-set coda). Widescreen digital lensing credited to two lensers, Steve Mason and David Knight, appeared distractingly murky and dark at the screening attended, though subsequent comparison to an online screener revealed this to be mainly a projection issue.