City of Angels (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As the world hurtles towards the end of the second millennium, there seems to be an increased awareness of mysticism and things spiritual. Suddenly, it's hip to believe in God (not necessarily a specific god -- an amorphous, non-denominational deity will do), an afterlife, and, of course, angels. The entertainment industry, never one to be left out on any trend, has thrown itself headlong into this one. On TV, the cloying "Touched by an Angel" is a hit -- a mainstay of many people's Sunday night viewing plans. And the movies have jumped on the bandwagon, too, giving us enough celestial beings in the last few years to crowd the head of a pin -- Michael, The Preacher's Wife, Wide Awake, and now City of Angels. Add films that feature Satan and his minions or less well-defined issues of mortality, and this list of titles explodes.

Most American-made motion pictures based on foreign originals tend to be huge disappointments. There have been exceptions, of course, and now City of Angels has effectively re-worked (rather than re-made) Wim Wenders' 1988 art-house classic, Wings of Desire, by taking away some of the earlier film's more meditative elements and deepening the romantic aspect. The ending is completely, and surprisingly, different.

City of Angels is based, not unexpectedly, in Los Angeles, which here is a literal "City of Angels," with the invisible celestial agents sitting high atop billboards and skyscrapers. Dressed like Heaven's Men in Black, the angels are an odd bunch. They spend their days and nights observing and occasionally offering comfort to select humans. They cannot touch, taste, or smell. They are immortal and ethereal. They live in a library and spend time at the beach in a kind of wordless communion.

Seth (Nicolas Cage) is just one of many angels assigned to Los Angeles. But, unlike most of his brethren, he has a strong desire to experience what it's like to be human. He seems to share the sentiment of a comment that he relates to fellow angel Cassiel (Andre Braugher): "What good would wings be if you couldn't feel the wind on your face?" One day, Seth is in a hospital to guide a dying man to the next life. His attention is captured by the determination of a doctor, Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan), to save the patient's life. Later, he returns with the intention of soothing Maggie's distress, but it proves to be a difficult task. Soon, he is spending hours on end watching her, eventually revealing himself as a benevolent stranger. Seth has fallen in love with Maggie, but he thinks it's a doomed proposition until a angel-turned-human (Denis Franz) reveals that God gives all of his creations free will, and, if Seth wants it enough, he can shed his wings for a human body. But, just because Seth loves Maggie, there's no guarantee that she will reciprocate his feelings, and if he gives up his immortality for a romantic illusion, what then?

When it comes to heavenly matters, City of Angels doesn't offer any particular insights. The movie does not ponder the meaning of life; rather, it shamelessly celebrates the human experience by demonstrating the monotony of endless voyeurism. On a somewhat less-intellectual level, it's also about sacrifice. But the film doesn't thrive on ideas alone (if it tried, it would be in trouble, since it's not that deep). Solid acting and positive chemistry are critical to City of Angels' success.

Nicolas Cage is fine as Seth, although there are times when he doesn't quite fit into the angel's shoes. Cage is good as the detached observer, watching and waiting, but there's a quality of childlike innocence to Seth that he doesn't quite pull off. There's a scene in City of Angels that is pretty much lifted from It's a Wonderful Life, and it illustrates how much more convincing James Stewart was. Meg Ryan, as always, is delightful and ebullient as Maggie. This is a case of perfect casting -- I can only think of a few other actresses who are as good as Ryan in this kind of role. Her range -- despair and hope, pain and rapture -- places her work in City of Angels alongside that in Prelude to a Kiss and Courage Under Fire as proof that she is a capable, well-rounded dramatic talent. Meanwhile, in a supporting role (the one essayed by Peter Falk in Wings of Desire and its sequel, Faraway So Close), scene-stealing Denis Franz is delightful as the king of hedonism.

I suspect City of Angels is going to remind many viewers of Ghost, but there's a big difference: this film is more true and less manipulative. (In tone, although not necessarily in content, it reminded me of Truly Madly Deeply.) Ultimately, it is a tear-jerker, but there's more to it than that. While the movie isn't as effective as Wings of Desire in developing the angels' culture and presenting a meditation upon spirituality, it gives us a pair of well-developed protagonists worth caring about and establishes a complex dynamic between them. City of Angels is more romantic than profound, but Dana Stevens' script is thoughtful and intelligent, and I never felt insulted by what the characters say, do, or think. Director Brad Silberling, who previously made another supernatural tale, the live-action Casper, effectively suggests the spiritual/material duality of the world. It's a subdued motion picture, but the lack of overt melodrama makes for a moving and involving story. Even for those enraptured by Wings of Desire, City of Angels is strong enough to cast its own quietly romantic spell.

City of Angels (United States, 1998)

Director: Brad Silberling
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, Denis Franz, Andre Braugher, Colm Feore
Screenplay: Dana Stevens based on Wings of Desire
Cinematography: John Seale
Music: Gabriel Yared
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 1998-04-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1