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'We're No Angels' : (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 15, 1989

Only a top-of-the-line Hollywood affair could squander as much big-name talent as is wasted in "We're No Angels." Everyone associated with the film -- actors Robert De Niro and Sean Penn, screenwriter David Mamet, director Neil Jordan, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot -- brings respectable credentials to the project, but it's inconceivable that any of them could be happy with the results. Not always, it seems, does talent count for something.

If we were inclined to the positive side, we could say at least that the stars look fit, that Jordan brings some muscularity to his direction (especially in the opening scenes), and that Rousselot's images have an uncanny, crystalline beauty.

But that's it, that's all, that's the whole show.

The film, which bears some scant resemblance to the 1955 Humphrey Bogart picture of the same name about a trio of escaped convicts, seems to wobble somewhere between a star-frolic -- a homage to frivolous Hollywood escapism -- and something with more bite, something more serious, something, well, worthy of having David Mamet's name attached to it.

But this "We're No Angels" isn't funny and it isn't smart -- it's a dumb show, almost literally, in fact. So few lines have been written for these actors that you almost believe that the script intentionally parodies their renowned inarticulateness. In scene after scene, they communicate in grimaces, shrugs, hand signals, eyebrow business. It's like being trapped in some Method hell.

The story, which has been changed in this version from three convicts to two, comes to a dead stop almost before it has even started. After escaping from prison, the convicts hole up in a Catholic monastery, where they are taken for a pair of noted priests, but virtually none of the comic possibilities of this loaded situation are explored. Nor is there much suspense in their repeated, unfunny attempts to make it across the Canadian border, which is located close to the monastery, before prison officials catch up with them.

In interviews, Mamet rails against Hollywood and the compromises it forces on him, but what defense can he have for these stale jokes and missed opportunities? This cannot be answered with a shrug. This mess he made himself.

We're No Angels is rated PG-13

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