The best scene in "City Of Angels" has nothing to do with the central
romantic storyline. It takes place on a beach, where angels gather every
morning to hear the ethereal music that accompanies the sunrise. On this
particular morning, the otherworldly beings are joined by a former angel
who chose to become human. As the spirits turn towards the dawn he says,
"Oh yes, the music. I can't hear the music anymore." Then, with a look of
glee, he exclaims "But you can't do this!" and shucks off his clothing,
racing into the sea to catch a wave and body surf through the blue waters.
"City Of Angels" is an ambitious work, attempting to remake a
contemplative European art film in a way that satisfies the commercial
demands of Hollywood while maintaining the integrity of the source
material. The effort is less than successful, but offers ample rewards
for those willing to overlook the gooey parts.
The film is based on Wim Wender's cult favorite "Wings Of Desire." The
1988 West German-French production focused on angels who wander the
streets of West Berlin, listening to the thoughts of the humans around
them. Bedecked in long dark overcoats, the apparitions radiate an air of
wistful dignity as they quietly discuss all they have seen, wondering
what it would be like to be human. Towards the end of the film, one angel,
smitten by a lonely trapeze artist, considers taking the plunge and
Wenders' film was a somber, reflective tone poem, and "City Of Angels"
starts off the same way, effectively establishing a lyrical feel through
John Seale's gorgeous cinematography. The film begins with a series of
great shots depicting angels in Los Angeles, walking on the roofs of
buildings, sitting atop freeway signs, and perched on billboards. Using
aerial photography to look straight down on the vast city from above, the
film manages the near-impossible: it actually makes Los Angeles look good.
When the spirits aren't giving unseen comfort to those in pain, or
escorting the dying to the next level of existence, they gather at the
library to compare notes. Seth (Nicholas Cage) tells his friend Cassiel
(André Braugher) about an extraordinary thing that happened earlier in
the day. While watching Dr. Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan) perform heart surgery,
she looked up from her patient, gazed straight into Seth's eyes and said
firmly "He's not going anywhere." This isn't supposed to happen and Seth
is amazed. He's also in love.
Seth decides to become visible to the doctor, passing himself off as a
friend of Nathaniel Messinger (Dennis Franz,) one of Maggie's patients.
Over the course of time, he learns that, if possessed with enough desire
and courage, an angel can become human, but once done, the process cannot
You know what happens next, and that's the problem. After establishing a
lilting poetic feel, "City Of Angels" takes a fateful turn away from
"Wings Of Desire" and towards "Ghost." In the original film, the romance
was saved until the very end and served as a nice coda to a meditative
piece. Here, the sparks fly way too early, and the film has nowhere to go
except to the land of Hollywood clichés.
It's not the fault of the cast. Nicholas Cage is fine, although his deep,
sincere doe-eyed gaze gets a little old after a while. Meg Ryan,
insufferably cute in many of her recent films, plays it straight here and
gives a solid performance. The supporting players are even better.
"Homicide's" André Braugher casts a warm presence as the angel Cassiel,
and Dennis Franz is an absolute delight as Nathaniel Messinger, a loving
husband and father as well as an unabashed hedonist, drinking in all of
The problem with the latter half of "City Of Angels" is that the romance
itself simply isn't all that interesting. When Seth and Maggie start
behaving like animated Hallmark cards, the film takes on an air of glossy
familiarity that makes one wish the camera would move away from the star-
crossed lovers and refocus on Messinger and Cassiel, two far more
Instead, the film goes straight down the Hollywood highway, complete with
a drippy, contrived romantic climax that's just plain annoying. After
that extremely awkward move, the film regains its footing for a suitably
poetic closing scene, but the earlier pathos leaves a mild, but
While the problem areas in "City Of Angels" are difficult to ignore, they
do not negate its many pleasures. For Hollywood to attempt a work of
spiritual poetry is rare. That they didn't quite pull it off is a shame,
but certainly not surprising. With this film, it's easy to enjoy the good
stuff, suffer the bad, and appreciate the effort as a whole.
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott