Courtesy Photo
Opened: Friday, April 10, 1998
Rated: PG-13
Directed by Brad Silberling

Starring Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, Dennis Franz & Andre Braugher

Surprisingly sensuous "Wings of Desire" remake goes for the heart instead of the head

In 1987 director Wim Wenders released "Wings of Desire," a textbook German art film about a guardian angel who contemplates leaving heaven for a mortal existence.

A powerful, somber and highly intellectual picture, it is not even remotely the kind of thing one would expect to a Hollywood studio to mold into a star vehicle.

But "City of Angels," a stirring, very loose remake of "Wings" starring Nicholas Cage as the pensive celestial, is so unlike its inspiration it barely qualifies as a remake at all.

Directed by Brad Silberling ("Casper"), "City" cops some of Wenders' creative visuals and his basic character outline of an angel who longs to touch, taste and love like a living human. But this surprisingly sensuous film is far more accessible and adds a well of emotional depth to the angel's internal struggle between Heaven or Earth. Where "Wings" went for the cerebral, this film goes for the gut.

Cage plays Seth, an doe-eyed seraph in envy of mankind after a quiet eternity watching over Los Angeles from atop skyscrapers and freeway signs. Shaken by a seemingly impossible encounter with a trauma surgeon (Meg Ryan) who looks right into his eyes while trying to save a dying patient (angels aren't visible to the living), Seth starts to contemplate Earthly temptations and, naturally, falls for the surgeon.

This adaptation keeps many of the incidentals from "Wings" -- the silence of the city from the angels' perspective and the fact that they gather day after day in a library to compare notes -- but writer Dana Stevens makes major renovations that afford "City" an opportunity to explore themes of death and spirituality its inspiration only touched on.

Dr. Maggie Rice (Ryan) has a crisis of confidence after losing the patient she was operating on when Seth arrived, and it's her wrecked emotional state that heartens Seth to appear to her as a somewhat regular guy with a supernatural air about him.

Their attraction isn't quite the magic it ought to be, despite the editorial insistence of an overbearing soundtrack, but eventually the love story conquers us anyway, boosted by the sheer talent of the actors.

Strong and philosophical as the surgeon, Ryan has graduated from her girl-next-door image with her wonderful curly-Q hair and perpetual pep intact. Her moments of despair are raw and moving, and her confusing feelings for this otherworldly stranger are vividly apparent. Nobody can play being overcome by a kiss like Meg Ryan can.

Cage's face takes on an amazing kindness and a peaceful depth as Seth. This movie is the angel's story before it is love story, and it's very satisfying to see Cage in another brave, emotional role after his recent frivolous run as an action hero.

While Seth's conflict isn't as touching as the film tries to make it seem, some of the best moments come as he muses on the perks of mortality with fellow angel Andre Braugher ("Primal Fear") and former angel Dennis Franz ("NYPD Blue"), who encourages Seth to take the plunge. Franz is quite the scene stealer in his role as a "recent addition to the human race" who greedily and joyously indulges in life (and in Ben & Jerry's, and in waffles, and in bacon...).

When finally compelled to become human by a moderately trite plot device -- Maggie's reluctant engagement to another doctor -- Seth's solemn supernatural demeanor gives way to wild giddiness over all his new senses. His golden skin turns fleshy, his beard comes in and he loses all sense of direction. As an angel he didn't need a street address to find Maggie, but as a mortal he's doomed to hitchhike around L.A. looking for her.

"City of Angels" suffers slightly from pruned intensity. As I mentioned, the romance and Seth's mortal-immortal conflict just don't have the impact they were designed to. Silberling must have recognized this because he lathers the last reel with tear-jerking cues.

But the film makes up for its faults with honest, intoxicating performances and a somewhat surprising ending (for a Hollywood film) that leaves the audience pondering all the questions of life and death the picture had posed throughout.

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