Watching Robert De Niro in We’re No Angels is a little like watching Meryl Streep in She-Devil. We know these actors as the most volcanically serious performers of their generation. There’s something positively liberating about seeing them play fast and loose in out-and-out comedy.
De Niro is teamed with that chip off the De Niro block, Sean Penn, in a movie very loosely adapted from a 1955 Humphrey Bogart film of the same title. This one is about two convicts, played by De Niro and Penn, who get dragged along when a fellow inmate (James Russo) busts out of prison on his way to the electric chair.
Russo goes his own way, but De Niro and Penn straggle along through the wilderness (filmed in British Columbia) until they reach a small river town. All they have to do is cross the bridge in town and they’ll be safely in Canada. But with the prison warden hanging around the bridge with his Dobermans, our boys need to be wary.
Somehow it follows that De Niro and Penn are mistaken for priests, visiting the town for an annual celebration of the local miracle, which involves a weeping statue. Much of the film’s comedy, therefore, comes out of the sight of these two roughnecks wobbling around in clerical garb.
The fact that these two actors are known for their non-comedic tendencies simply adds to the joke. Penn summons up all the sweetness he can muster – which, surprisingly enough, is quite a bit – as the lame-brained con who finds himself at home in the church. De Niro is given to mugging, but he’s so good at communicating exasperation that it doesn’t matter. He’s particularly adept at absolving an adulterer in the confessional: “Your wife doesn’t know? Then what are you worried about? Forget about it!”
Add a little romance for De Niro with a local (Demi Moore), and We’re No Angels comes together as satisfactory entertainment. It has a nice edge to it, thanks to the script by playwright David Mamet, which consistently spews sharp and gritty dialogue. There’s a certain morbidity that keeps the movie interesting, provided by Mamet and Irish-born director Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa).
First published in The Herald, December 15, 1989
Another review where it appears a final paragraph or two was chopped off. And yet, I’d probably said enough at that point. The supporting cast is full of characters actors, including an early appearance by John C. Reilly. Apparently De Niro and Jordan did not get along, which could explain something. The poster, as you can see, used the tagline “The Con is On,” one of a series of films that employed that dismal phrase – the first being, in my memory, and I am sorry I remember it, The Sting II.