We’re No Angels (1989)

I picked this one up on a whim because it was cheap and, hey, can you go too wrong with both Robert De Niro AND Sean Penn? Neil Jordan directing was just a bonus. I guess I should mention that I have actually NOT seen The Crying Game, and that my Neil Jordan experience is based far more around The Company of Wolves, a far more obscure and peculiar film he made in the 1980s, a distortion, retelling and generally odd version of Little Red Riding Hood addressing the underlying meaning of the story in more blatant terms–and probably closer to its folk roots.

I found out only afterward that this was in fact a remake of a 1955 flick directed by the great Michael Curtiz and starring ol’ Bogie, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov (the cast and director made me, of course, immediately consider digging that one up at some point). As is my usual habit with movies of all kinds, I deliberately avoided reading anything about its plot or history–or that of the original film. I get the essence or snippets from Leonard Maltin on occasion, but he tends to be nicely surface most of the time.

Ned (De Niro) and Jimmy (Penn) are two of three escaping convicts, the third being the far more aggressive Bobby (James Russo), who are on the run from their prison’s Warden (Ray McAnally) and happen upon a nearby town–luckily for them, they were in a prison we are told is near the Canadian border. Hiding near the road, the two of them are accosted by a woman who insists they forced her to hit a deer in the road, then asks whether they are more priests wandering into town because of the “Weeping Virgin” shrine in a nearby monastery. They shrug and agree to this, using her for a ride into town, then finding themselves stuck in this lie when she stumbles across them again, now being pushed into the monastery, headed by Father Levesque (Hoyt Axton). They are mistaken for missing priests Father Riley (De Niro’s new alias) and Father Brown (Penn). Neither being a very bright person, their skill at improvisation and gaining confidence of the characters around them is thoroughly tested by the thoroughly naïve and unsuspecting populace of the town and church. John C. Reilly makes a mid-sized appearance as a young monk who takes a shine to both of them, but especially to “Father Brown,” whose work (re-interpretting the Book of Revelation) he admires thoroughly, eventually emulating the unorthodox and accidental habits that “Brown” takes up.

Obviously the joy here is De Niro and Penn overall, De Niro as the more dominant and controlling bumbling criminal, and Penn as the goofball and slightly dumb one with a good heart. We don’t know what their crimes are, which is likely good as it makes it that much simpler not to draw a line for them to bring themselves back from to gain our empathy. De Niro does, as Maltin points out, mug like crazy here. Unlike Maltin, I’m okay with that. It feels right for the character and somehow like, despite that, he is not in any way trying to steal the screen from Penn or any of the supporting cast. It seems just as if Ned is a guy who is smart enough to know what he doesn’t know–he supplants responses he isn’t sure of with shrugging and frowning or smiling and nodding, or some combination thereof, convincing the person he’s talking to that he understands or appreciates their comments, even when he has no clue what they are saying. Jimmy seems to be a good-natured soul to whom lying is not second nature–once in a while his brain kicks into gear immediately after he’s confronted with something unfamiliar, but usually he’s consumed with his own nervousness and takes ages to come up with a response, a perfect look of blank horror as his brain clearly rattles around trying to find an appropriate answer takes over his entire expression until he finally rolls something out that comes out surprisingly well for him and generally impresses the people around him.

Axton (forever Billy Pelzer’s father, if you ask me) is a wonderfully cherubic and benevolent soul as usual, and good at it, McAnally (whose name is wholly unfamiliar to me) is a good antagonist as the driven, determined and hard-nosed Warden, and Ken Buhay is amusingly offended by the actions of the two faux priests on a consistent basis as he plays foreign Bishop Nogalich. Appearing as Nogalich’s translator is Wallace Shawn (name doesn’t sound familiar? one word: “Inconcievable!”) who is on show as his usual pompous but diminutive self, with Bruno Kirby taking a role somewhere between the angry but submissive henchman Nicky in Donnie Brasco and the controlling (if incompetent) “gas man” in the fantastic third season finale of Homicide: Life on the Street–a deputy who has the fire Kirby clearly has in him, but not the control of others. The one low spot is Demi Moore, who fails miserably at any emotion but a harsh New England anger, everything else coming across as dead and read from a script instead of emoted in any way.

The other thing worth noting, certainly, is the excellent set and production design–the church feeling aged but not dilapidated, and most importantly, not unnaturally so. The final shots of the bridge leading into Canada and the rushing waterfalls below it are staggering in their beauty and power, if you will pardon the hyperbole. I’m not really sure why this film is so looked down upon, David Mamet (yes, David Mamet) turns in a nice enough script and De Niro and Penn are in their elements, both managing to easily look dumber than they actually are.


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