Angels are a hot pop-culture item right now. So it was only a matter of time before someone got around to making an adaptation of Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, about an angel who falls in love with a mortal. Although not a perfect film, City of Angels is perhaps the best Hollywood could do with the story.
Seth (Nicolas Cage) is an angel. He spends his days wandering the earth, with his other angelic kin (including Cassiel, played by Andre Braugher), observing humanity unseen, and helping to comfort mankind. One of the duties of the angels is to accompany the recently deceased to heaven. Obviously, a popular haunt for the angels then are hospitals, and it is there where Seth meets Maggie.
Maggie (Meg Ryan) is a heart surgeon, struggling with the concept of mortality. Even if she does everything right…sometimes she still loses her patients. She begins to lose hope…
But then Seth decides to make himself seen to Maggie. He finds himself falling in love with her, and must decide whether or not to make the ultimate sacrifice: give up being an angel for the brief passion of being human.
Only loosely based on Wings of Desire, City of Angels has a stronger emotional core, but can’t hope to match the former film’s superb visual style. Still, though, City of Angels does create some interesting visuals, but some of them are unintentionally creepy. The legions of black clad angels can’t help but to recall the strangers of Dark City.
But perhaps the biggest difference between the film is the schlock-factor. The film’s new age attitudes range from cute to cuter. Towards the end, the film struggles to grasp some important topics…but the film has never attained the weight needed to deal with anything of substance.
City of Angels also suffers from occasional bouts of misdirection (from director Brad Silberling). The most notable example occurs in its final act, where a critical error treats the audience contemptibly. A crucial twist is grossly mishandled and becomes ridiculous. As a result the emotional climax of the film is muted and loses its depth of meaning. Still, the point of the movie is made, if a bit heavy-handedly.
Nicolas Cage plays most of the film with blinkless moist eyes, but is given a chance to stretch near the end of the film. Meg Ryan’s role is very familiar. Her Maggie is a minor variation on her staple “romantic comedy character”, seen in everything from When Harry Met Sally to Sleepless in Seattle. But the film never quite explains a central question: Why does Maggie fall for Seth? His initial appearances seem rather eerie and disturbing…perhaps a little more development would have been able to explain things.
The supporting cast does a good job here. Andre Braugher does a good job as Seth’s angelic partner. But the true scene stealer here is Dennis Franz as Nathaniel Messenger, one of Maggie’s patients who has keen insights into how the world really works.
City of Angels is far from subtle, hitting you over the head with everything from passion to pathos. You may not respond as strongly as the film intends you to, but it does have its moments.