"A Prayer for the Dying," the British thriller starring Mickey Rourke, Alan Bates and Bob Hoskins, may hold your attention for a while because of the people in its cast. But the deeper into the movie you get the weaker their hold on you becomes.
The movie opens with a view of a narrow country road in Northern Ireland where a pair of terrorists -- among them a sour-faced redhead in sunglasses named Fallon (Mickey Rourke) -- watch from a tree as their partner rigs a bomb for a convoy of British army trucks scheduled to pass at that hour. Just as the trucks are about to reach the bomb, though, they pull to the side, allowing a school bus full of kids to pass them and, instead of the soldiers, it's the children who get blasted.
The scene shifts to London, where the rest of the film's action is set. A local crime boss named Meehan (Alan Bates) wants Fallon, who has fled from the police and his own comrades in the IRA, to knock off a prominent rival hood named Krasko. In exchange, he will be given $50,000, a passport and safe passage out of the country. Fallon, who's been damaged spiritually by his murderous work for what he calls the "glorious cause," wants no more of killing. "I never killed for money, or because I enjoyed it," he says. But he's left with no choice -- it's either kill Krasko or be killed.
Dressed in a cassock and beret, he tracks Krasko to a cemetery, and while in the process of killing him is seen by a local priest (Bob Hoskins). The basic situation is taken from the 1953 Hitchcock film "I Confess," in which a murderer confesses his crime to a priest who, as a result, himself becomes a suspect. The new wrinkle here is that instead of endangering the priest, who otherwise would have to be knocked off, Fallon's confession protects the father as much as it does the criminal.
These early scenes are effective enough, and Rourke, looking as if bath water hasn't touched his hide since "Angel Heart," is a compelling figure. Bates, too, seems to take particular pleasure in playing the amoral crime boss who, conveniently enough, is also the director of a funeral parlor.
But Rourke is the center of attention. Rourke is a peculiar, disturbing actor; he has talent, but you get a sense watching him that his obsession with honesty, with playing the reality of the character, has twisted into something that has nothing to do with acting. His performance here as a man who's caught in a moral dilemma is fascinating to watch but, at the same time, ludicrous. Still, he's playing a dangerous man here, and he seems truly dangerous -- capable of anything. Whenever he's on screen, an air of tension surrounds him.
Other Hitchcock films -- "Strangers on a Train," "Dial M for Murder" and others -- are evoked, but in this context the effect is less homage than desecration. Still, for as long as the actors are allowed to interact with one another the movie is watchable.
But the characters are little more than stock figures and the script is full of thunderous pronouncements about the nature of sin and the state of Fallon's soul. The director, Mike Hodges, seems not to realize that there's anything hackneyed or heavy-handed in the movie's good versus evil symbolism; he wants desperately for his work to be taken seriously, but as the plot asserts itself we lose interest.
The weakest -- and most obvious -- section of the film involves the love affair between Fallon and a pure, young, blind girl (Sammi Davis). This unsullied creature is the only one who can see the good in Fallon, who can feel his virtue. And it's through her faith and love for him that Fallon is able to find something worth living, or dying, for. This is shameless marlarkey and not for a minute is any of it buyable. According to reports, Rourke has disowned the film because it fails to present the plight of the Irish Catholics in a favorable enough light. But it's hard to imagine that the movie's politics were anything other than a mess from the start. So maybe there were other reasons why Rourke ducked out from underneath this one. I can think of plenty -- it's a movie begging to be disowned.
A Prayer for the Dying, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some violence and suggestive material.