Déjà Vu

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City of Angels
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Every time a remake or adaptation comes along, it's time for jury selection. Whether it's 12 Angry Men or Twilight Zone--The Movie, we're implicitly polled on our thoughts about this translation thing--and I'd suspect that most of us would say an original is not to be tampered with.

However, the "no remakes--never!" attitude might buy you a ticket in the gallery but not on the jury. Who's to say that the next remake won't have the twist or the star or the clearer vision that was missing from the original? Sure, we've been burned: Breathless (1983) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 and 1994) weren't so hot warmed over, and The Return of Martin Guerre didn't survive too well as Sommersby. Our skepticism might be justified, since American studios have been on a robotic translation kick of late: Everything from French farce (La Cage aux Folles) to Dutch thrillers (The Vanishing) is up for grabs, and for no apparent reason.

Such thoughts leave us at the table ready to defend or prosecute Nightwatch and City of Angels. The former is based on a Danish thriller and is written, directed, and shot by its original crew; the second is more loosely spun from Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire. Nattevagt (1994), the Danish original of Nightwatch, has been limited to festival screenings and specialty runs in the U.S., where it has earned a minor cult reputation. Wings of Desire, of course, is the rare neo-Euro classic that's also sentimental--the movie about angels that people who dress only in black can feel comfortable loving.

So, fellow jurors, I must confess that the new Nightwatch is guilty of the "why-bother?" rap. A story about a law student (Ewan McGregor) who works as a morgue attendant while a serial killer is on the loose, this movie is even more derivative of its American pulp origins than the Danish original. In both versions, what drives the plot forward is simplistic manly goading: The law student's buddy is bored with life and nudges him into ever more risky stunts, while the cop investigating this whole situation has a shadowy life of his own. Maybe it's the unfamiliarity of the Danish actors, but what Nick Nolte (cop) and Josh Brolin (buddy) do with these rote figures in the U.S. version is less interesting and more boorish.

The updated Nightwatch retains many of the original's touches, importing its spooky lighting effects and vivid editing patterns without paying import tax. But Nattevagt had hints of religion to help define its evil, as well as offering a Scream-style pop admiration of American thriller cliches. Nightwatch, by contrast, is deadly earnest--emphasis on the "deadly." It should be noted that the remake had been previously announced and promoted by Miramax several times for release dates that were never met. Such indecision provides an extra clue about the film's crime: unnecessary translation.

City of Angels had a few obstacles of its own in getting made, but it has some advantages that Nightwatch doesn't: namely, the crowd-pleasing Meg Ryan and the whole angelmania phenomenon. When Wim Wenders made Wings of Desire in 1988, the idea of any story about angels--especially from a sourpuss modernist like him--was chancy. But now we have angelic TV shows and key chains and even angel endorsements from Oprah--and so if Meg Ryan can be thrown into this predigested concept, who's to argue? Multiplex regulars surely won't fret about what's been done to a black-and-white German art film, no matter how "classic."

As this case comes to court, I could gripe that City of Angels is guilty in its own slick and colorful way, but I won't. I still don't see why it was made and I'm ready to join the 100 percent of women polled in my household who don't see Nicolas Cage as romantic--and yet I'll confess that City of Angels is sincere and confident and thankfully restrained. Where Wenders threw together some abstract musings about compassion, a divided Berlin, and the difficult joys of mortality into a plot about an angel who turns mortal so he can love an acrobat, the City of Angels crew jumps straight into a tidy Classic Hollywood plot about motivated behavior and desire that's sought, fulfilled, frustrated, and, finally, understood.

Cage's angel broods just as much as Bruno Ganz did in the original, but Meg Ryan's heart surgeon faces larger questions about life and death than her counterpart (Solveig Dommartin) ever did. In the bargain, the figures around these lovers get to the point more often. Dennis Franz is a life-loving hedonist who knows both earthly and angelic joys, and he's completely persuasive. In a smaller role, the great Andre Braugher (of Homicide fame) is a more energetic angel pal who gets Cage to think more deeply. The result is a more solid and focused meditation on why we should want to be alive.

That said, City of Angels is both sappy and packed with doubts. As it winds down, the sappiness sweetens the doubt but the doubt gets pretty despairing. The film also suffers from a problem that was in Wenders's version and is still worth prosecuting: the adoring angel as dedicated voyeur, a gazer with no discretion. Given Cage's sepulchral looks, this darker side of the someone-to-watch-over-me concept calls into question why anyone of any nationality would want to literalize the dream of "guarding." I mean, once you see a guy lurking around a woman, knowing too much about her, shouldn't there be some other bells going off?

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