BR: Prayer for the Dying, A (1987)

May 24, 2016 | By

PrayerForTheDying_BRFilm: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  April 12, 2016

Genre:  Suspense / Crime / Drama

Synopsis: After a school bus packed with children are killed, an IRA hitman flees to London where he’s hunted by the police, the local mob, and his former associates.

Special Features: Isolated stereo music track (with some sound effects) / 2 Interviews: Director Mike Hodges (29:01) + Cinematographer Mike Garfath (11:54) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and / Limited to 3000 copies.




After playing small but memorable characters in a handful of films – Heaven’s Gate (1980), Body Heat (1980), Diner (1983), and Rumble Fish (1983) – Mickey Rourke advanced to a co-staring role in the indie drama The Pope of Grenwich Village (1984), after which came a succession of high-profile projects that transformed him into an international box office star – a position that undoubtedly helped him survive in direct-to-video productions when his career started to veer downward.

During his 1980s ascent, Rourke re-teamed with Gate’s auteur Michael Cimino in the controversial Asian gangster drama Year of the Dragon (1985), played a suave entrepreneur and S&M practitioner in Adrian Lyne’s home video hit 91/2 Weeks (1986), and headlined Alan Parker’s demonic noir thriller Angel Heart (1987), which made headlines mostly because it marked the big screen / naked & blood-soaked debut of The Cosby Show’s ingenue Lisa Bonet, giving the film a hefty dose of publicity yet neutering her film career in one simultaneous swoop.

The level of Rourke’s star power wasn’t unusual for the time, nor was his ‘pay or play’ deal with A Prayer for the Dying’s producers – regardless of whether the film is made, he would receive full pay – but according to director Mike Hodges, power plays and perceptions of the film’s tone were already being fought out between star and indie studio The Samuel Goldwyn Company, and the film had a tight start date and shooting schedule to meet.

According to the frank interview on Twilight Time’s lovely Blu-ray release, Hodges replaced original director Franc Roddam (Quadrophenia, The Lords of Discipline, The Bride) when Goldwyn execs and Rourke weren’t pleased with script rewrites. Within a short time-frame, Hodges had to refine the original script based on Jack Higgins’ novel, and address locations and co-star casting to please everyone’s needs, and while he laments the final film edit doesn’t reflect his more ‘subtle’ treatment of the material, he’s pleasantly surprised by Prayer‘s ongoing fan base, plus a number of genuinely effective scenes that temper the script’s piquant melodrama.

The story has IRA hitman Mickey Fallon (Rourke) fleeing to London after a roadside bomb kills a busload of children in the Belfast countryside. Fallon is wanted by local police, he’s given orders to return to Ireland or die by former mate Liam Docherty (Liam Neeson), and he’s coerced by mobster / funeral director Jack Meehan (Alan Bates) into performing one more hit before a promised passport whisks him away to safe anonymity by sea.

Pressured by Meehan, Fallon’s contracted gravesite kill is seen accidentally by a priest, Father Da Costa (Bob Hoskins), and in an unusual strategic maneuver, Fallon insulates himself from police, priest, and mobster accusations by confessing the murder to directly to Da Costa, hoping the priest’s vow of silence halts further deaths and enables his planned escape, but Meehan wants all links to the hit snuffed out. Fallon becomes a pawn in further power plays, and his involvement with Da Costa’s blind niece Anna (Sammi Davis, in her second pairing with Hoskins, after Mona Lisa) endangers her safety when he can’t keep a distance and falls for her kind soul.

Rourke, who spent months developing his Belfast accent, is fine as the grubby hitman; Bates is highly entertaining as the soft-voice mobster; and Davis makes the most of a small and essentially minor role. Hoskins, however, is miscast, mostly because the character’s built up as an older and wiser version of Fallon, having overcome his own demons after a violent military life. Rather than play Da Costa as a man who can and does show traces of his violent streak, the tough priest’s conflicts are almost entirely internal, forcing Hoskins to posture and come off as weak, except in a clichéd scene were he pulverizes Meehan’s goons in an alley, drowns in guilt and self-disgust, had has his Why-God-Why? fit with fists clenched, eyes to the sky, and Bill Conti’s music accentuating the personal and spiritual trauma.

The finale is similarly overwrought – Fallon hanging onto a giant cross before plunging to the church floor is typical of the increasingly stark metaphors for a lost soul desperately trying to retain a moral position while surrounded by teasing, devilish pests – but it’s part of the film’s super-melodramatic arc that hammers home the nihilistic finale.

In the interview, Hodges recounts how Prayer was already being picked apart by reporters prior to its release, alleging the film and its maker were presenting a pro-IRA stance (which is nonsense), and forcing him to craft a hasty media piece originally aimed at industry colleagues and peers. The advert was ultimately published for the masses in a P.R. campaign bungled by his agent, but in hindsight those inflammatory events added to the mystique of a film that was ultimately branded a dud.

The film’s strengths reside in a great opening scene where Fallon and Docherty watch helplessly as the school bus passes a military convoy and is shredded by their bomb, and small scenes throughout the film, especially Docherty’s parkland attempt to reign in Fallon and bring him home. Less successful is material with Docherty’s partner Siobhan (Alison Doody), a no-nonsense, verbal minimalist who rides shotgun as the pair troll the streets in search of Fallon before she (predictably) ends her partnership and heads home solo.

Bates’ weird, semi-comedic take on Meehan is initially jarring, but it adds to the film’s peculiar DNA that’s visually slick, but palpably grimy due to the excellent use of the Isle of Dogs locations, seen in greater detail in Douglas Hickox’s Brannigan (1975).

Hodges and frequent cameraman Mike Garfath exploit the area’s soot-clad residential and industrial environs, and the film has its share of Hodgian violence, notably a grotesque crucifixion of Meehan’s over-greedy salesman by his ever-grinning henchmen, including Anthony Head (Dominion, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Rourke’s longtime pal Leonard Termo.

Prolific character actor Christopher Fulford has little to do but sneer, grope Camille Coduri’s breasts, and lean into everyone’s private space bubbles, but his version of Meehan’s spoiled, scummy brother turns their sibling relationship into a subtle comedy team with ruthless reactionary maneuvers.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is the unofficial special edition release that should sate fans who’ve wanted a formal Special Edition since the film’s home video release caught their eyes. Besides a fine HD transfer, the sound mix is warm and robust, and Conti fans will relish the separate isolated stereo score track that features one of the composer’s most ravishing main themes plus a few tracks with sound effects.

In the half-hour 2016 interview with Hodges (which, like the Garfath piece, has heavily compressed audio), the director points also points out the music edits and final mix that was imposed by the producers, often placing rhapsodic pieces over scenes Hodges had designed for location effects (like the carnival which flanks the church and is a prominent backdrop in the finale). Goldwyn execs wanted a more streamlined, less arty thriller, and part of the film’s re-editing also eliminated some portentous scene flashes which Hodges preferred, but may have rendered the religious metaphors more leadened, if not overbearing.

He voices his wish for a reconstruction of his director’s cut – an impossibility, given what remains is probably a video dub – but he’s nevertheless pleased the film’s outlived the critics, and forms an important work in his varied career: Get Carter (1971) is still one of Britain’s most important crime films and Flash Gordon (1980) a surreal, operatic comic book epic, whereas Croupier (1998) showed Hodges in fine form after meandering in TV productions.

If Prayer were to be reconstructed with its dual scores, a major perk would be to compare Conti’s lush orchestral music with John Scott’s more contemporary approach that featured electric and bass guitar instead of a folk theme and massive use of strings. Both composers made use of harp, whereas Conti’s instrumentation evoked the ‘purity’ of Ireland with dulcimer and pennywhistle. A mere handful of action cues are enhanced by synths in Conti’s vision, whereas Scott opted for a more rock-oriented style and some electronically processed discord.

Scott’s rendition of his love theme is performed (perhaps appropriately) by a small town dance hall orchestra – slow and easy, with electric bass and drums supporting solo violin, acoustic guitar, and harp – whereas Conti’s theme is more delicate, and yet it becomes quite syrupy in a carnival montage where Fallon and Anna get close, and becomes hydrogenated saccharine by the End Credits.

It’s hard to say whether one score would’ve worked better than the other, as Conti emphasizes Irish folk using a formal orchestra, whereas Scott drew from the overt working class and industrial visuals for the dramatic tracks. It’s streetwise grit versus tragic folklore, but each certainly pays homage to the film’s ascending melodrama. Perhaps the most ironic aspect to Conti’s involvement is that a year later he was tasked with rescoring another picture: the truncated U.S. edit of Luc Besson’s The Big Blue / Le grand bleu, eschewing Eric Serra’s synth-heavy approach for a more orchestral score with an further syrupy main theme. (Unlike Conti’s replacement score for Blue, both the Conti and rejected Scott music from Prayer received separate CD releases.)

Hodges says he was drawn to the project by the religious and political elements, and perhaps the gangster Meehan, but Prayer’s traditional narrative structure is markedly different from Get Carter and Croupier, two crime films where the stories don’t flow with visual and musical elegance. In particular, Carter’s plot is propelled by scenes where the filmic violence is inflicted upon characters and audiences with brute force, and the use of music is almost evenly divided between source and score in sparse quantities.

Hodges’ theatrical output has never been prolific, and his last films include the horror film Black Rainbow (1989), scored by John Scott; the sly and low-key thriller Croupier (1998) written by Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Disappearance, Captive), and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003).

Films based on Jack Higgins novels include The Violent Enemy (1967), The Wrath of God (1972), The Eagle Has Landed (1976), and A Prayer for the Dying (1987).

Mickey Rourke would star in a variety of crime, drama, and art films – Barfly (1987), Homeboy (1988), Francesco (1989), Johnny Handsome (1989), Desperate Hours (1990), and White Sands (1992),  plus Zalman King’s erotic classic / guilty pleasure Wild Orchid (1989) – and he would have a small role in the 2000 remake of Hodges’ Get Carter, but with rare exceptions like The Wrestler (2008), the major memorable parts would soon diminish.

Producer Peter Snell is best-known for the cult films Goodbye Gemini (1970), The Wicker Man (1973), the CanCon classique Bear Island (1979), and a quartet of Charlton Heston films: the clumsy Julius Caesar (1971), the superior Antony and Cleopatra (1972), The Mother Lode (1982),  A Man for All Seasons (1988), and Treasure Island (1990).



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmographies: Bill Conti / John Scott
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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