They call sprawling, smoggy, crime-ridden LA the City Of Angels. God only knows why. It's not as if it's a glittering, spiritual metropolis of ethereal do-gooders, a hazy Heaven on Earth, a place where human destinies are cranked by an almighty omnipotence and oiled by the hands of his tireless, unseen servants.
Or is it? While in real life angels are few and impossibly far between, in the movies you can't move for know-it-all, Heaven-sent missionaries interfering in mortal affairs. Denzel Washington donned the shining hoop in The Preacher's Wife; Ewan McGregor was plagued by matchmaking seraphs in A Life Less Ordinary; and now, it's Nic Cage's turn. Immortal and invisible, he stalks downtown LA with an expressionless, almost drugged-up serenity in this wholesome, weepy, romantic drama, which is based on the 1988 Euro-film Wings Of Desire.
Slowly, almost as if he had all the time in the world to play with, director Brad Silberling (Casper) lushly remoulds and replays the dramatic heart of Wim Wenders' Berlin-set story. We watch while hundreds of angels, clad in ebony overcoats, wander intangibly through LA. Moving closer, we meet Seth (Cage) and Cassiel (Braugher), two of the Heavenly hosts as old as Time, who watch, listen, and sift through the constant babble of human thought to comfort the weak and uplift the downhearted. But when Seth meets surgeon Maggie (Ryan), he begins to wonder what being human having the ability to touch, taste, feel and love - would be like. Unable to dismiss his affection for the feisty doc, he becomes visible so he can meet and talk to her. A passion ignites between the two and Seth is faced with a life-changing decision: could he trade in his immortality for a short existence of Earthly pleasure with the Meg Ryan that he loves?
For its first lazy hour, City Of Angels is enchanting and wonderfully simple. To his credit, Silberling doesn't stray far from the original story, transferring key images and ideas wholesale: angels sitting fearlessly atop buildings; a mysterious, stubborn human (Franz) who appears to know more about the Heavenly host than he should; and the crisis-wracked love interest (although in Wenders' story, she was a trapeze artist). It's beautifully shot too, a deliberate attempt to isolate beauty, faith and Godly order among the lonely metropolitan chaos. But between fantastical set-up and whistle-stop Maggie/Seth love story, City Of Angels ultimately rings hollow and empty. Admittedly, there are some heart-rending moments when Ryan skilfully plays the confused mortal in love, or Cage adopts a suitably trance-like mope throughout.
But the movie quickly loses the otherworldly magic it had created. Progressively solemn and drowsy, it's like a Chinese whisper, merely a faint echo of the original story, with details lost and corners cut. So much so that, come the conclusion, Wenders' sophistication has been ousted at the expense of the sort of mush US audiences love. Think Splash, but with an angel instead of a mermaid.
If you've already seen Wings Of Desire, City Of Angels will be a pale and lifeless imitation. If you haven't, you'll be intrigued by the premise, perhaps even captivated by the story. But you'll be disappointed and unsatisfied by the time you leave the cinema.