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Prayer for the Dying, A
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by Jack Sommersby

"Rourke, Hoskins, Bates and Hodges Deliver"
4 stars

One of those little treasures that did poorly at North American box offices but has graced the eyes of those on home video willing to take a chance on it.

Mickey Rourke gives one of his finest performances as Martin Fallon, an IRA sharpshooter whose long-buried conscience is awakened after a freak civilian-casualty accident jars something loose inside. In Northern Ireland, a roadside bomb has been set up to take out a British military convoy, but a school bus packed with young girls is allowed to pass on by, and it's this vehicle that gets blown sky-high instead. Overlooking the scene on a nearby hill, Fallon witnesses the atrocity and is immediately shell-shocked -- he's devastated and can't move; his two comrades, unable to budge him, leave him there to escape the ensuing gunfire from the alerted British soldiers, and Fallon eventually pulls himself together and flees on his own. We're forwarded to London, where Fallon has gone to meet a black-market contact to get him a passport and safe passage on a ship to the United States, but there's a price to be paid for the goods: he's to do one last job, taking out a crime lord at the request of a competing crime lord who wants to eliminate him; Fallon, his soul sick of killing, immediately refuses and walks away. Not one to take no for an answer, the crime lord, Jack Meehan (Alan Bates), forces the contact to tip the police off to Fallon's whereabouts, knowing Fallon's resourceful self will elude capture and make it back to the contact. This does indeed happen, and the contact spells things out: with Fallon trapped in London, Meehan, a powerful man with many loyal henchman, will continue to sell Fallon out to the authorities until he's captured. Seeing it as a choice between his life and the target's, he reluctantly agrees. ("This killing, it seems to follow me about," Fallon ruefully remarks.) But the job, while successful, has an unforeseen setback: Fallon takes out the hood at a cemetery while the man is laying flowers at his mother's grave, but it's witnessed by a priest, Father Michael Da Costa (Bob Hoskins); Fallon instinctively draws his gun on him, but going against his nature, he refuses to fire, allowing the priest to tend to the mortally-wounded man while he calmly walks away from the scene. This doesn't go over well with Meehan, because the priest can identify Fallon, and the cops can possibly trace him back to Meehan. Fallon, though, fixes this: sneaking into the church confessional later that day, he tells of his crime to Da Costa before the priest knows who he is; when Fallon identifies himself at the end, Da Costa is outraged at him for using the seal of the confessional to "silence" him. Meehan, too, is outraged, because Da Costa is still a loose end, and Meehan, a meticulous criminal who leaves nothing to chance, still wants the priest dead. But Fallon is firm: no one is to touch Da Costa. The rest of the film deals with the ensuing conflicts and confrontations set off from this, with all three men stubborn and headstrong in their ways and who have had blood on their hands at one time or another (Da Costa used to be in the army, and admits to having "liked the action").

A Prayer for the Dying is an adaptation of the superb book by renowned author Jack Higgins, and is fairly faithful to it in terms of both structure and tonality. It's a character-oriented story that interestingly delves into the violent nature inherent in some men but not in high-minded Jungian terms; it simply (though not simplistically) avers that when provoked, even those who've put violence behind them (or, in the case of Fallon, someone who only thinks he's put it behind) will eventually regress back to their former ways. Fallon didn't have to carry out his last murder, as Da Costa pointedly reminds him when Fallon tearfully claims on the pulpit that he didn't really have a choice; this is in contradiction to his protecting Da Costa, the priest knows, but he refuses to let Fallon off the hook. Still, Da Costa isn't unsympathetic to Fallon's moral plight: he's angered that Fallon's all too willing to damn himself when only God can do that; he encourages him to give himself over to God and then ask to be judged. But the film wisely doesn't get in over its head here: it provides us with more in the way of theological tail-ends and asks us to consider this matter for ourselves. And Da Costa isn't let off the hook, either. After his church is desecrated by some young thugs put up to the job by Meehan, and Da Costa angrily confronts Meehan in a public place and pushes too far, the priest, with his military training still intact after all these years, manages to beat to a pulp all three of Meehan's well-bodied henchmen in an alley out back. (The scene climaxes with a great moment where Da Costa, repulsed at being temporarily turned on by his actions, raises a garbage-can lid and hits the biggest of the three again; in essence, he's metaphysically striking himself.) Diametric to Fallon and Da Costa is the unapologetic Meehan, who relishes violence and makes absolutely no qualms about it. It's all in the course of doing business, you can hear him reason, but it can also be a lot of fun, even if he himself is not personally administering it -- when Meehan's been informed that Fallon is on his way to Da Costa's church after the hit, Meehan evilly smiles and says to his younger brother, "He's going to kill him there, in his own church. Nice touch." Meehan's a sociopath, to be sure, but he also possesses a deep love for his brother, as well as sympathy for both the dead and bereaved who make their way into his mortuary business. He personally tends to the bodies, and when Fallon puts a cigarette to his mouth in the embalming room, Meehan frowns and tells him to have a little respect; and when one of his workers tries to thieve from an elderly lady by overcharging her for services, he gives her a full order of flowers with his compliments and a car to take her home, and then has the employee's hands steel-spiked to a wooden board in the back room shortly thereafter. (He also wants him back to work the next day.)

Suave and sadistic, Meehan's a dandy creation, and the way the stalwart Bates plays him, he's the Devil in the very finest Brooks Brothers suits. He's been written both multi-dimensionally and humorously, given the juiciest of the generally-good dialogue, and yet Bates, who helps make the character something of a mini-classic, never steps over the line and emotes, which must have been awfully tempting. Bates has given impressive performances before, even in mediocre fare like The Rose (as Bette Midler's frustrated manager) and Duet for One (as Julie Andrew's long-understanding husband), but here, given the opportunity to really cut loose, he takes on the role of Meehan with the greedy aplomb of a hungry diner ready to rip into an entree of Steak tartare, and gives the proceedings a seismic shot of energy whenever he's on screen. Meehan's the kind of villain you just love to hate because he's got more charm than anyone else in the movie -- he's not burdened by any real morals, so he isn't ever glum; and Bates doesn't make the foolish actor's mistake of resorting to predictable, stock bad-guy mannerisms just because he's not playing an inimical antagonist. (The only other British thespian who could've comparably brought this role off would be Oliver Reed, but even he wouldn't have had the discipline to stay within the necessary parameters -- he would've been helpless at not showboating.) By contrast, Hoskins has a far less showy role as Da Costa, and it's to his immense credit that he manages to give just enough of an underplayed performance while still vivifying it enough to maintain interest. A lot of actors go dead when playing a priest, with the mistaken belief that playing someone "saintly" means doing so with an overly-mechanical contemplativeness (the route Robert De Niro took in True Confessions), but Hoskins, always imaginative and intuitive, gives Da Costa, a man who over time has learned to use speech rather than physicality, some internalized force. His Da Costa makes the match-up with Rourke's Fallon formidable, refusing to give him an inch when challenging him on his hypocrisy, but also softening when trying to impart to Fallon the divine benefits of honestly seeking forgiveness, and Hoskins never goes maudlin on us. But it's Rourke's outstanding, deeply-felt work that's the film's crux. After delivering stellar work earlier in the year as the seedy '50s private eye in Angel Heart and the skid-row writer in Barfly, Rourke is as deglamourized here as he was in those exemplary pictures. Rather than giving off too much movie-star wattage and taking on an infallible Irish accent and dialect, Rourke burrows deep inside Fallon and gradually unearths a bountiful array of emotional truths with uncommon tact. He never pushes it, and he bravely goes into dramatic areas with a nakedness that makes lines like, "There's no reason for killing or dying anymore. What's more, there's no reason for living" cut close to the bone and hurt.

The direction is by Mike Hodges, whose variable career choices have ranged from the superb British crime tale Get Carter to the enjoyable comic-book adventure Flash Gordon, and he's awfully good at texture and properly-expressive camera placement. It's a professionally-made production that gets all the basics right (soundly getting in and out of scenes and finding their dramatic centers, shaping individual sequences, letting even the secondary characters make indelible impressions), and it's a pleasure to sit through a film that doesn't go in for a lot of fancy shots and visual excessiveness that would clash with the material at hand. Especially noteworthy is a scene in a secluded park where Fallon desperately tries explaining to an ex-IRA comrade, who's come to kill him if he won't go back, why he had to leave "the cause," how he became so smothered with memories of all the killings he carried out that he couldn't get the stink of "dried blood" off him. As opposed to uncouthly milking it for pathos, Hodges shoots it very simply and sparingly, letting the dialogue and the two focused actors do the heavy lifting; only near the end of it does he punch things up when the threat of violence is introduced, and it's flawlessly executed (no pun intended). The screenplay, alas, isn't perfect -- there are flaws, and though they're not detrimental, they're still negatives. The romance that develops between Fallon and Da Costa's blind blonde niece (an appealing Sammi Davis) seems more obligatory than integral; it's not only a contrivance but an obvious plot device to give Meehan's smarmy, sadistic brother (an intimidating Christopher Fulford) someone to threaten so Fallon can eventually come to her rescue. The scenes of Fallon's IRA comrades tracking him down aren't crosscut with the others as fluidly as they could be. And the final confrontation between Fallon and Meehan on top of Da Costa's church with a bomb ticking away is pretty over-the-top and comes up short in the timing at wringing the necessary maximum suspense from it, as if Hodges just didn't have his heart in it. (It does offer up a neat exchange: When Fallon refuses to let Meehan defuse the bomb and Meehan screams that they'll both be killed, Fallon, accepting of his fate, calmly says,"II'll see ya in Hell, Jack.") Some might accuse A Prayer for the Dying of exploiting something as volatile a subject as the Irish Republican Army when it's not really dealt with -- coming out of the theatre, the uninitiated will have no idea what the core of the conflict between the Irish and British is about -- but the film is justifiable in using it to etch and explore a terrorist whose inner life has been ruinously ravaged by years of killing even if the chief reason behind it is viewed by him as righteous and necessary for the good of country. By refusing to function as a straight action thriller and bringing its fair share of food for thought to the table, the film is not only very entertaining, it's responsible-minded, and that's a virtue right on par with the top-flight acting and fine film craftsmanship on proud display.

While it's available on DVD, the widescreen transfer lacks anamorphic treatment.

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originally posted: 09/11/11 05:31:54
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User Comments

5/20/13 action movie fan good story but way too slow to hold interest 2 stars
8/06/08 Charles Tatum Rourke and Bates lift some really strange material 4 stars
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  11-Sep-1987 (R)
  DVD: 04-Feb-2003


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