Saturday 30 November 2019

Movie Review: A Prayer For The Dying (1987)

A character study set in the shadow of the Irish Troubles, A Prayer For The Dying offers a plethora of moral dilemmas but is hampered by choppy momentum. 

In Northern Ireland an Irish Republican Army unit including Martin Fallon (Mickey Rourke) and Liam Docherty (Liam Neeson) mistakenly blows up a bus full of school girls. Martin flees to London and attempts to put violence behind him, but mortician and mobster boss Jack Meehan (Alan Bates) and his psychotic brother Billy (Christopher Fulford) pressure Martin into one last murder to eliminate an underworld rival in exchange for a new passport and money.

Martin reluctantly commits the murder, but is witnessed in the act by Father Da Costa (Bob Hoskins). Martin spares the priest's life but follows him to his church and confesses to the murder in the confession booth, forcing the Father into silence. Meehan is unhappy about the loose end and sets about intimidating both Martin and Da Costa. Docherty embarks on his own search to bring Martin back into the revolutionary fold, while Martin starts to develop feelings for Da Costa's blind niece Anna (Sammi Davis).

A drama with snippets of action and tension, A Prayer For The Dying works best as an examination of regret as the dark shadows of Martin Fallon's victims finally catch up with him. The film's focus is on the collision between his intentions to start anew and the reality of his reputation as an expert in killing. A hardened criminal cannot just walk away, and everyone from his former IRA colleagues to the gangsters of London and English enforcement authorities are interested in finding and pressuring him.

The film is based on a Jack Higgins novel, and he helped to co-write the script. Mike Hodges directs, and both are victimized by content spread too thin. By the time the characters are all introduced and the tense dynamic is established between Fallon, Da Costa and Meehan, the film stalls. Hodges has to find a rickety excuse to keep Fallon hanging around near the church, and chunks of screen time are consumed by uninteresting side quests including the unhinged Billy running loose, the clunky romance between Fallon and Anna, and Da Costa tangling with Meehan.

Mickey Rourke sports bright red hair as a neon sign to his Irishness, but does not bother to change it to any other colour once Fallon is designated Britain's most wanted fugitive. Rourke's performance walks a tightrope between cool and disinterested, and ultimately he does just enough to hold the film together. Bob Hoskins never quite convinces as an ex-military operative now playing at being a man of religion. Alan Bates bites into the role of Jack Meehan with an expensive overcoat, shiny teeth and a snarky smile, taking immense pride in preparing corpses for burials and ordering his goons to create more.

Fallon has to decide whether to kill or not, Da Costa whether to betray his vows and talk or not, and Meehan whether he can tolerate witnesses to his dirty work. A Prayer For The Dying asks the right questions, but is not as good at concentrating on the answers.

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