I have never seen the original starring Humphrey Bogart and I sat through this movie without expecting anything, totally blank minded, no preconceived ideas. Here I was, with a comedy movie from the 80s starring two of the greatest dramatic actors of the industry (though Penn wasn’t as well established at that time). Directed by Neil Jordon, who was later brought to limelight by the controversial Interview with the Vampire, and penned by David Mamet, one who wrote for acclaimed dramas like The Verdict, The Untouchables and Glengarry Glen Ross, this movie is not essentially is laugh out loud comedy. Rather it is made up of subtle moments and the comedic expressions on its characters faces. The goofiness is there and so is the lurking feeling that all of this is lame and not plausible.
We’re No Angels starts in a State Penitentiary somewhere near the Border. It is a horrible place with a horrible warden and filled with horrible criminals: murderers, sadists, and the like. In come Ned and Jimmy (Robert De Niro and Sean Penn), two cell mates who are stuck in the hell hole and longing to go outside. Jimmy is a goofy, stupid albeit likable man and Jimmy just wants his freedom. Their wish is fulfilled soon as a vicious killer, Bobby (James Russo), who is about to be electrocuted dares an escape from a prison and these two are dragged along. Now, they are free from the prison walls, outside in the cold, as fugitives. They have to escape somewhere the police can’t find them. After taking a lift from an old lady, they arrive in a near border town, only a river separating this village from Canada, their ticket to salvation. But, then starts the mistaken identity parade. They are mistaken for a pair of priests who are supposed to be arriving in the town the same day. From there on begins a cain of incidents that put all their plans to escape to foil. As hard as they try, the can’t make it across the river.
The romantic angle is introduced in the form of Molly (Demi Moore) who is a prostitute with a child with an affliction. Jimmy falls for her but she doesn’t want any religious person near her and hence is unwilling to let this “priest” interact with her. Finally, Jimmy and Ned see a way out of the village. A procession is going to the nearby church in Canada, with each priest allowed to bring along a person they want to help. Now, Jimmy and Ned try to use Molly’s kid, so that they can leave the village and the cops. Things are complicated when Bobby returns and threatens to reveal their true identities to the authorities.
The characters in this comedy are goofy, deliberately. They know they are in a comedy and nothing is to be taken seriously. The facial expressions on De Niro and Penn’s face and clear indicators of what they are thinking and this is what makes much of the fun on the movie. The laughs in the movie are few and far between, and this is the major problem with the movie. While, the premise was pretty good and they had good leads, who did a good job, the movie wasn’t able to gather much fun moments. Apart from the lead characters, only one other character is given some good scenes and that is Young Monk (played superbly by John C. Reily). The talent of Bruno Kirby and Demi Moore is wasted with one dimensional characters with little or no good lines. Also, the ending was a bit predictable. That is to be expected from a comedy movie, but still, it makes the viewer want to see more. The positives I took from this movie were the performances of De Niro and Penn and a solid middle hour. The negatives were failing to capitalise a good and funny script with talents both on and offscreen.