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Prayer for the Dying, A
Based on the novel by Jack Higgins, A Prayer for the Dying plays archetypically like a modern western with some moments of explosive action and a characteristically moody Mickey Rourke in the lead.
We begin with a scene that could have been ripped out of local headlines in Belfast in the eighties: IRA members set a bomb intended for the military and instead kill a bus full of young schoolchildren. Martin Fallon (Rourke) stands watching the aftermath without twitching, frozen like a statue even after the military personal are firing automatic weapons in his general direction. He decides in that moment he wants out of the violent life he's been leading. When he goes to a connection to get a passport to leave the country for good, he finds himself under pressure for one last job to kill a local gangster. He reluctantly agrees and kills the target in a graveyard, but the crime is witnessed by a priest named Da Costa (Bob Hoskins). Fallon refuses on principle to kill a priest. While investigating how to keep the priest quiet, Fallon meets Da Costa's niece Anna, a blind woman who sees the good in him. We discover Da Costa also was a man with a violent past before he turned to God. He tries to get through to Fallon that redemption is possible if he would only ask for forgiveness and stop. Meanwhile, the man who hired Fallon, is a sociopathic gangster named Jack Meehan (Alan Bates). Meehan runs a mortuary and believes himself to be utterly charming, more intelligent than anyone in the room and he refuses to let Fallon off the hook. As pressure mounts, everyone from the violent world he knows is conspiring to keep him in the game. Murder is dealt by all the players as casually as a hand shake yet always comes at a personal price.
The film has many of the structural motifs of a western. A mysterious reformed killer with a code of ethics who's new to town. A man of God who's a reformed man of violence. A black-gloved smarmy villain and his idiot henchman brother. Some of the tropes such as Meehan running the mortuary or Fallon walking around with a sawed off scatter gun, would likely have played a bit more acceptably in a period western. Here those genre references play a bit forced and out of time, which could be one reason for it having a soft box office on initial release in 1987. The girl being blind, other than one scene where she is tormented by a captor, feels unnecessary. It even reads potentially chauvinistic as a plot device pandering for her vulnerability and innocence so that she has to be predictably rescued by Fallon.
Rourke moves through the film as Fallon like a dead man walking. Fallon believes he has a destiny with fate to pay for his sins. He is resigned to it, willing to accept death from anyone although he would prefer the bullet come either from or for a friend. Liam Neeson plays a fellow IRA member and is his friend who was sent to bring him back or kill him. There is a fun scene with Neeson and Rourke facing off in an eerily empty grove of trees. Rourke's mostly quiet, soft spoken performance conveys the character's lack of life. Fallon is either literally impotent or unable to accept love in the version of the film we see here. He avoids physical affections or deep connection from every woman in the film. There's a potential love scene with Anna that leads to a time cut where she's crying that she wishes she could see him and he holds her telling her it's okay. Which one of them was unable to perform is left unclear.
In the end, Fallon finds his redemption in protecting Da Costa and Anna. Perhaps the only significance to Anna being blind is it gives Fallon what he seems to yearn for. He just wants to disappear from the human race or somehow become someone else. The pain of what he experiences as reality is too much for him to bear so rather than connect he would prefer instead to quietly fade away.
Director Mike Hodges, of Get Carter fame, focuses his quality craftsmanship in a setting that he makes clear in interviews was a work-for-hire scenario. He was brought on five weeks before production when another director fell out. Hodges brings his keen eye for blocking, a great team including cinematographer Michael Garfath and was able to make some nuanced choices on a project that from the sound of it could have easily ended up being an even more formulaic affair. Visually the film creates a sense of separation or distance between the characters. Production design abounds with religious iconography and many interiors have arches, decorative design or elevated platforms that are reminiscent of churches.
Hodges quickly found himself politically negotiating his way between the American producer Sam Goldwyn and star Mickey Rourke, each having their own distinct ideas and veto powers on the project. For instance, he mentions that Anna was initially supposed to just be an attractive love interest with a straightforward sex scene and they were able to compromise with what is seen here. Hodges laments that his director's cut has never been released and likely never will be. Goldwyn recut the film with more of an action focus "for American audiences." He removed the original score from Tony Earnshaw and replaced it with a new score from Bill Conti (Rocky). Honestly, as interested as I would be to see the director's version, I don't think we have the likelihood of a lost masterpiece although this is very solid work from Hodges et al.
Limited to 3000 units. 107 minutes.
Presented in 1.85:1 this is a very clean transfer with good color representation and a nice amount of grain. There is a slight fog to some of the shots, but no lack of detail so I think this is the result of using haze on some of the interiors for moody effect. Overall it's a lovely looking film that both feels like a real environment and captures a painterly look. Definitely a bump in quality from the previous MGM DVD from 2003.
This film comes with English 2.0 DTS HD MA with optional English SDH subtitles. Again an improvement from the DVD in remastering the stereo track in DTS HD. The audio is clean and clear with no noticeable defects.
Packaging and Extras:
Twilight Time does their usual quality production. Clear snap case with nicely printed cover art and an article fold out that gives information about the film and the context of IRA issues of the time. There are two video interview segments, one with the director Hodges and the other with the director of photography Garfath. They are overall nice looking and informative. There is some blockiness seen in hand movements that is likely caused from being shot in PAL and improperly transferred to NTSC.
• Director Mike Hodges on A Prayer for the Dying (29:01)
• Director of Photography Mike Garfath on A Prayer for the Dying (11:54)
• Original Theatrical Trailer
• Isolated Score Track (with some effects)
For fans, there aren't enough good Mickey Rourke films. That is, before his boxing career, workout regimen and plastic surgery physically transformed him into a totally different persona. Once you've seen The Pope of Greenwich Village, Angel Heart or 9 1/2 Weeks, you understand the appeal he had as a younger man and might seek out other films from this period of time. For those interested in this era of his career, A Prayer for the Dying is worth a viewing.
Ultimately this is a great presentation of a solid film. I don't know that most would watch this film over and over again. Certainly a Rourke or Hodges completist will want to have this quality limited edition Blu-ray of the film in their collection.
Rating: Highly Recommended.