‘This isn’t fair! This isn’t right!” ; the complaints of Al Capone as imagined by David Mamet in The Untouchables offers up a phrase that comes to mind when reviewing. In the case of Mamet’s collaboration with Neil Jordan, We’re No Angels, the critical negativity is, IMHO, neither fair or right. The knives were out for Sean Penn circa 1989, and whether the film was just out of step with the times or there was a conspiracy against the makers, it was largely derided. I saw this film in an empty multiplex in 1989 and loved it; surprise was my main emotion when it popped up on Amazon Prime. And a question; had I got this one wrong? It only took a few minutes to re-affirm in my mind that this remake of the 1955 film is one of the most unfairly neglected films imaginable.
Let’s start with the look; producer Art Linson has just made The Untouchables with Mamet, and the vintage look and feel of this film could be from the same cinematic universe, with leather-coated cops, hard-working women with moppet kids, and tough criminals waiting for a safe passage across the US Canada border; it wouldn’t seem out of place for Elliot Ness and his posse to be camped around the corner. The opening jail-break, in which Ned (Robert De Niro) and Jim (Sean Penn) accidentally find themselves on the lam with killer (James Russo), is bloody, explosive and exciting, and sets up a comic situation where Ned and Jim disguise themselves as priests. They attempt to lay low in a monastery near the border, where Jim has religious pangs and Ned falls for single-mom Molly (Demi Moore). There’s also plenty of great support, including John C Reilly as a keen young monk, Hoyt Axton, Ray McAnally, Michael Lonsdale and Bruno Kirby.
Call it the Ishtar effect, but critics seem blindsided when big-name talent go for comedy, as if that’s somehow beneath them. But the holy fool figure is cleverly handled here, with Jim’s wide-boy philosophy wowing the monks and suggesting that religion is anything but a closed casket for sinners. If Ned is seduced by Molly’s barking rasp, Ned falls for something more spiritual; as early glimpse of a family through a window of the shanty-town captures the right sense of pathos.
Indeed, that shanty-town itself is worth a look; a complete riverside hamlet, specially built, a stunning environment for the story to unfold, with wooded backdrops and golden sunlight; this is a beautiful film to look at. De Niro and Penn both throw themselves into the comic roles, but there’s real sophistication in the dialogue and comic set pieces. And it’s worth noting that in Mamet’s State and Main, he depicts the makers of a period film hawking bill-boards to advertisers when their film goes over budget; the huge Budweiser ads featured here suggest a similar trade-off.
One scene in particular, when Jim imagines a miracle in the presence of a weeping statue, only be have it casually explained by a monk as a leak in the roof, nails the worldly humour of We’re No Angels; this is a film of great wit, a sense of the value of religion, and a constant sense of wry humour. It’s three decades too late, but can we show a little respect for We’re No Angels?