Though a flop at the box office, the film received very positive reviews from critics and was also the last North American title to be released on LaserDisc.
In Manhattan in the early 1990s, Frank Pierce is a burned-out paramedic who works the graveyard shift in a two-man ambulance team with various different partners. Usually exhausted and depressed, he has not saved any patients in months and begins to see the ghosts of those lost, especially a homeless adolescent girl named Rose whose face appears on the bodies of others. Frank and his first partner Larry respond to a call by the family of a man named Mr. Burke who has entered cardiac arrest. Frank befriends Mr. Burke's distraught daughter Mary, a former junkie. Frank discovers Mary was childhood friends with Noel, a brain-damaged drug addict and delinquent who is frequently sent to the hospital.
After a few minor calls (one involving Noel), Frank and Larry respond to a shooting and he tends to one of the surviving victims. Frank notices two vials of a drug named "Red Death", a new form of heroin that is plaguing the streets of New York City, roll out from the victim's sleeve which implies it was a shooting by a rival drug gang. While in the back of the ambulance with Frank and Noel the victim goes into denial and repents his drug dealing ways but dies before they can reach the hospital.
The next day Frank is paired with his second partner Marcus, an eccentric and religious man. They respond to the call of a man in a goth club who has suffered a heart attack. Frank diagnoses that he has in fact suffering from a heroin overdose caused by Red Death. As Frank injects the man with the antidote, Marcus starts a prayer circle with the baffled club-goers and just as his preaching climaxes the overdosed man becomes conscious again. On the way back to the hospital Frank swings by Mary's apartment building to tell her that her father's condition is improving. Frank and Marcus then respond to a call by a young Puerto Rican man whose girlfriend is giving birth to twins despite his claims they are both virgins, calling it a miracle. Frank rushes one baby to the hospital but it later dies. In a moment of desperation Frank starts drinking and Marcus soon joins in, crashing the ambulance into a parked car.
The following morning, Frank sees a stressed Mary leaving the hospital and follows her to an apartment block; she tells Frank that she's going to visit a friend and he escorts her to the room. After a while Frank goes to the room and barges his way in the door, only to discover it's in fact a crack house run by a friendly dealer named Cy Coates. Mary has turned back to drugs to cope with her father's fluctuating condition and Frank tries to get her to leave but he is dissuaded by Cy who offers Frank some pills. In another moment of desperation he swallows the drugs and begins to hallucinate, seeing more ghosts of patients and the moment when he tried to save Rose. Once over, he grabs Mary and carries her out of the building. While visiting a comatose Mr. Burke in the hospital Frank starts hearing Burke's voice in his head, telling Frank to let him die but he resuscitates Burke instead.
The next shift Frank is paired with his third partner Tom Wolls, an enthusiastic man with violent tendencies. At this point Frank is slowly beginning to lose his mind - while tending to a suicidal junkie Frank manages to scare the patient away. The pair are then called to Cy's drug den where another shooting has occurred, and find Cy impaled on a railing, having attempted to jump to safety. Frank holds on to Cy as the other emergency services cut the railing but Cy and Frank are nearly flung off the edge before being pulled back up. Cy then thanks Frank for saving his life - the first patient Frank has saved in months. Afterwards Frank agrees to help Tom beat up Noel, but Frank is distracted and Noel flees into an area beneath the houses. Tom and Frank chase after Noel but Frank starts to hallucinate again, snapping out of it just as he comes upon Tom beating Noel with his baseball bat. During his second visit to Mr. Burke, the voice again pleads to let him die, and this time Frank removes Burke's breathing apparatus causing him to enter cardiac arrest, ending his life. Frank then heads to Mary's apartment to inform her, and she seems to accept her father's death. Frank is invited in, falling asleep at Mary's side.Nicolas Cage as Frank Pierce
Patricia Arquette as Mary Burke
John Goodman as Larry
Ving Rhames as Marcus
Tom Sizemore as Tom Wolls
Marc Anthony as Noel
Cliff Curtis as Cy Coates
Mary Beth Hurt as Nurse Constance
Aida Turturro as Nurse Crupp
Phyllis Somerville as Mrs. Burke
Queen Latifah as Dispatcher Love (Voice Only)
Martin Scorsese as Dispatcher (Voice Only)
Michael K. Williams as Drug Dealer
muMs da Schemer as Man in Crowd
- "T.B. Sheets" - Van Morrison
- "Janie Jones" - The Clash
- "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" - Johnny Thunders
- "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" - R.E.M.
- "I'm So Bored with the USA" - The Clash
- "Red Red Wine" - UB40
- "Nowhere to Run" - Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
- "Too Many Fish in the Sea" - The Marvelettes
- "Rang Tang Ding Dong (I Am a Japanese Sandman)" - The Cellos
- "Rivers of Babylon" - The Melodians
- "Combination of the Two" - Big Brother & The Holding Company
- "Bell Boy" - The Who
The film was part of a trio of films in the late 1990s starring Nicolas Cage that were coproductions of Paramount Pictures and Touchstone Pictures, with Face/Off (1997) with John Travolta and Snake Eyes (1998) with Gary Sinise. Screenwriter Paul Schrader intentionally removed the novel's religious tone to distance it from his previous collaborations with Martin Scorsese. He explains, "I intentionally took out a lot of the religious references of the book we adapted, because I knew Marty and I had done this so much. It was time to lay off it, because it was going to find its way in anyway." The opening song on the movie is "T.B. Sheets," a lengthy blues-influenced song, about a young girl who lies dying in a hospital bed, surrounded by the heavy smell of death and disease. It was written by Van Morrison and included on his 1967 album, Blowin' Your Mind!. The song was originally to be used in Taxi Driver. The director, Martin Scorsese, and Queen Latifah provided the voice of the ambulance dispatchers.
The film was well received by critics and holds a 71% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 105 reviews. The site's consensus reads, "Stunning and compelling. Scorsese and Cage succeed at satisfying the audience." Roger Ebert gave it a perfect four-star rating, writing, "To look at Bringing Out the Dead—to look, indeed, at almost any Scorsese film—is to be reminded that film can touch us urgently and deeply."
Bringing Out the Dead debuted at #4 in 1,936 theatres with a week-end gross of only $6,193,052. Produced at a budget of $32 million but generating a revenue of just $16.7 million, the film was a box office bomb.