Like Willy Wonka’s Square Candies That Look Round, there are Myths About Critics That Are True: like, they follow in a pack. It’s true that no one, from the college-paper free-movie mooch to the bigfoot at the big-city daily, wants to be the lone voice mumbling that, ahem, the emperor has no clothes. (Mr. Kubrick! You’ll catch your death!) But worse, much worse, is the shame potential of being the lone voice asking, “Has the emperor lost weight? He looks fabulous.”

Bringing Out the Dead is svelte and well-tailored, as scary and exhilarating as its subject, and—weirdly, considering the mood—a lot of fun. It feels like the work of a worn-out director content to pair up with his pet screenwriter, throw everything he likes about moviemaking up on the screen, and have a good time with it. Still, Martin Scorsese is an unlikely candidate for corset-loosening, considering that that attitude usually stems from a big disappointment and he’s still spoken of as a genius as of his last movie…the thing with that guy…oh, it’ll come to me.

Much has been made of the similarities between Bringing Out the Dead and the essential Scorsese-Paul Schrader collaboration, Taxi Driver, but Taxi Driver’s place in the lexicon of the American outlaw imagination is as much a function of time as it is of the film as empirical object. Before 1976, no one had seen quite that vision of debased humanity portrayed in quite that way, but since then the flawed and/or psychotic anti-hero clawing his misguided way to redemption through a filth-pit of modern life he sees as much more evil than anything he could perpetrate has become a stock cinematic subject (albeit with a tendency to be told in Schrader’s stock voice—he does seem unable to write about anything else, whether he’s rewriting Taxi Driver for Richard Gere’s American Gigolo or directing Willem Dafoe to play the gigolo as drug dealer in Light Sleeper).

In Bringing Out the Dead, the subject this time is Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), an emergency-services medic in New York City spiritually trampled by his work, which is basically watching people die. The film is a portrait of the city as it implodes, body by body, despite the evidence Pierce finds of the soul—ghosts of the dead he glimpses in passing, and voices of the tormented he hears. But portraits are static things—which is why the film rushes from one flamboyantly sordid scene to another, hanging scraps of narrative on the bare bones of a plot. Frank’s job is to save the unsavable, and salvation in its spiritual as well as physical sense takes unjust turns at every corner.

Frank is drinking too much, sleeping too little, and disgusted by his partners—John Goodman as a food-obsessed blowhard who tries to ignore calls; Tom Sizemore as Major Tom, a vengeful psychotic; and freewheeling Ving Rhames, who has a magnificent scene messing with the minds of bewildered goth club kids. One night Frank hauls in a middle-aged heart-attack patient to stew in a corner of the hellish emergency room where most of the victims end up. The man’s grown daughter, a delicate ex-junkie named Mary (Patricia Arquette, typically somnambulent), hangs around, and Frank, almost against his will, starts to hang around, too. Very sketchily, they form a bond, and the humanity that Mary teases out of Frank’s deadened soul attunes his inner ear to the haunted pleas of the dying man.

The film takes place over three nights as Frank works, drinks, and returns to the ER, increasingly bedeviled by the spirit of an asthmatic teenager he inadvertently ushered into the Beyond. Scorsese circumscribes New York as Frank knows it as a small and, in its horrible way, predictable place, oddly comforting against the random evil of Taxi Driver’s steaming Satanic underworld. The ER is a Boschian pit drawn with clean, short lines; as Frank returns to it again and again, we see the same exhausted nurses, impatient guards, and howling, miserable patients: a pathetic but almost comically repetitive environment.

Frank’s voice-overs (the film is based on Joe Connelly’s nonfiction book) veer into the pretentious here and there, but a frenetic, gaunt Cage is preferable to the stunned-ham Cage of recent vintage. Frank wants to play God, but he can’t. In fact, the meting out of death is maddeningly irrational: A homeless man (Marc Anthony) wants to die but doesn’t, suicides fail, and OD’s don’t take; but babies arrive stillborn, and random souls collapse pointlessly around him. Frank doesn’t stand for redemption but for crabbed futility.

The impotence of the lifesavers is the script’s engine, the place it finds its humanity. “I tried to kill it, but it won’t die,” says Major Tom of his old van. Right after which, Frank begins to hear the dying begging to be let go. (Such cycles are eternal, Schrader whispers—when we last see Tom, he’s still trying to kill the vehicle.) Scorsese mimics Frank’s frenzied schedule with a whiplike rhythm that speeds up scenes and crazes the city lights; blood-pounding music both delineates and makes a metaphor of the drivers’ emotions. The sound is terrific, bizarrely eclectic. Bringing Out the Dead zips along like something heavy that’s lost its wheels. It’s doesn’t feel like a major motion picture, but an exercise in craft. Dark, poetic, showy, Schrader’s script has little to say beyond the obvious: Life is unfair, and so is death. What elevates that platitude is the suggestion that there’s some value in walking softly—it’s better to meet injustice with kindness than to take up futile arms against the whole hellish show.

Oh yeah: Casino!

Joe the King is a crummy, self-pitying waste of film, a calling-in of Hollywood chits by writer-director Frank Whaley (a first-time role for the actor), a coming-of-age story whose path would be utterly predictable if the script weren’t so confusing and slapdash. Noah Fleiss, who is too young to be responsible for the dopiness of his character, plays 14-year-old Joe Henry, a kid from the bottom end of the working class in ’70s Jersey (maybe). His dad is the school janitor (Val Kilmer) and formerly something of a ladies’ man (I think), his mom (Karen Young) might be a tramp (it’s hinted), and everyone is mean to him except his no-good pals and a well-meaning guidance counselor (Ethan Hawke in a bad rug). Over an excruciating hour and 40 minutes that feels like 10 times that, skinny Joe commits petty acts of crime, goes to work at a restaurant or bar (hard to tell), says “fuck” about 10 million times, and watches his loser dad blame life for his own failings, before taking off (I guess) and leaving Mom with a houseful of smashed Johnny Ray records. In an effort to replace those records and pay off Dad’s debts, Joe breaks into his work, or maybe the drug dealer’s (or somebody skanky’s) apartment above work (or maybe somewhere else), steals some money, and gets sent to juvie—and good bloody riddance—although not before he has a wrap-up bonding chat with Dad, Mom, traitorous best friend, and older brother. Why the film acts as if it’s set in the ’30s, why it’s called Joe the King, and why Frank Whaley still feels so sorry for himself are among the many questions this lobotomized 400 Blows doesn’t bother to answer. CP