Brad Silberling’s “City of Angels” (1998) is the American remake of Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” (1987) and that is the biggest strike it against it.
There’s no way, let alone no point, to compete or attempt an improvement on Wenders’ film, a definitive portrait of angels among us and how life is a series of despairing and ecstatic moments.
Wenders’ film, even now, is a true original, in both presentation and tone, in its thoughtful meditation on angels in the presence of those experiencing sorrow and joy in late 20th century Berlin. “City of Angels,” which takes place in late ’90s Los Angeles, is an inevitably more mainstream and approachable work but is surprisingly strong and has aged better than expected.
Nicolas Cage stars as Seth, an angel who, like the others we see (but the human characters in the film do not), are clad in black, a quiet and watchful presence over L.A. who offer invisible comfort but little actual contact. It’s established that these angels don’t feel anything a human would and remain invisible (though the “rules” are broken frequently).
Seth is especially moved by Maggie (Meg Ryan) a surgeon who struggles and fails to save a patient and is flummoxed by an infant in the NICU who is constantly uncomfortable. Although Maggie has a heartless, on-again/off-again relationship with a fellow surgeon (Colm Feore), she senses Seth’s presence and, eventually, is able to see him.
Wenders’ film is a one-of-a-kind depiction of an invisible population of Berlin and their ability to be present but inactive with the humans they observe. The weakness of Silberling’s film (and it comes from Dana Steven’s screenplay) is that it leans into the love story too much – if anything here should have been dealt with differently, it’s this story angle.
We see Seth invisibly slither around Maggie without truly making contact, while both actors swoon and the wildly iconic ’90s song soundtrack kicks in. These scenes of an invisible watcher/stalker bring to mind Edward Cullen’s not-really-appropriate appearances in Bella Swan’s bedroom in “Twilight.”
In “Wings of Desire,” an angel (Bruno Ganz) falls in love with a trapeze artist (the late Solveig Dommartin) and the emotional payoff is a slow build and rather beautiful; here, because the love story is front and center, so are the commercial aspects.
Another retooled angle that doesn’t entirely play is the subplot about a former angel who provides wisdom. Wenders’ cleverly cast Peter Falk as himself in the role, while Silberling has Dennis Franz in the part; Franz gives it his best, but the strength of his performance is all he has to counter the miscasting.
Nevertheless, Silberling aims to recreate the earnest, awe-inducing meditative tone of the original and mostly succeeds; while this is a very American version of a German fantasy/social parable, the contrast of life’s natural splendor and emotional detachment comes across in the surprisingly rich imagery.
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On the production side, Silberling has two enormous assets: Gabriel Yared’s gorgeous score and John Seale’s knockout cinematography, both of which are sublime. Yared brings melancholy yearning to the proceedings, while Seale captures visions that are uncanny and painterly, which is unusual for a mainstream movie.
Note the close-up of Seth’s eye as he enters a new world, or the beach sunsets/sunrises that are witnessed by angels or the jaw dropping beauty of Ryan, sitting alone and still in a changing room, adorned by the glow of the sun. Seale is, after all, the same man who shot “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Finally, there’s the two leads – Ryan is excellent, in the kind of straightforward, often raw dramatic performance that was too often overlooked in favor of her more popular comedic turns (her impactful supporting work in “Hurly Burly” was also in 1998).
Cage is simply terrific here, going places that were new for him: post-Oscar and early into his new career status as a leading man in action movies and comedies, Cage was giving dynamic work long before the self-parody era of his filmography kicked in.
Aside from one scene (where he dances around a street in a fit of joy), his performance as Seth isn’t just reigned in but impressively controlled. Cage is often still and internal but also childlike and heartfelt.
We never got to see Cage’s take on Superman, as the cancelled “Superman Lives” was supposed to open the same year as “City of Angels.” This is likely as close to seeing Cage as Clark Kent/Kal-El as we’ll ever get, as the actor’s willingness to dial down his more theatrical acting tendencies allows for compassion and reflection to come across in his performance.
Nicolas Cage Recalls a ‘Beautiful’ Interaction with City of Angels Fan Whose Daughter Died https://t.co/Udc4S4twjl
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Seth’s trajectory, as being a supernatural being who compromises the state of his existence for love, is very-Superman. Cage even makes a few Superman-like poses as Seth is about to literally plunge into humanity (one of the film’s most breathtaking moments).
“City of Angels” not only has visible traces of what Cage could have brought to the Man of Steel but also showcases one of the actor’s finest, most under-valued performances.
Some of the character details don’t add up, like how Seth doesn’t know how to operate a shower, let alone a loofah. Then there’s the big melodramatic twist at the end – I’ll admit, I cried and the moment got to me, but I’m not proud of it.
The ability of an audience member to accept the big third-act reveal depends on a willingness to believe that Ryan doesn’t know how to properly ride a bike (though Seale’s rendering of this sequence is, like every other scene here, done with a masterful touch).
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“City of Angels” is often dazzling and stays with you after it’s over. Silberling’s film is more near-great than a total success and cannot approach the incredible “Wings of Desire.” Yet, let’s be fair about this – Wenders himself followed up “Wings of Desire” with the lighter, sillier, and splendid sequel “Faraway, So Close!” (1993) and has even admitted to liking “City of Angels.”
Silberling’s film may cut corners for the U.S. audience, but it has an emotional gravity and integrity to it that make it even grittier than “Faraway, So Close!” and just about every other mainstream American film about angels (mostly dopey comedies like “Michael” and “The Heavenly Kid”).
While critics mostly attacked Silberling’s film for being less than “Wings of Desire,” the truth is that “City of Angels” make a great companion piece to Wenders’ films and the three are worth viewing as a trilogy.