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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

FILM REVIEW OF ''ANGEL EYES" (2001)

“Angel Eyes” (*** out of ****) differs from the usual mindless summer film fare. Audiences under age 30 may classify this brooding, lethargic, romantic mystery with Jennifer Lopez and Jim Caviezel as downbeat, impersonal, and tiresome. Neither “Message in a Bottle” director Luis Mandoki and “Sharkey’s Machine” scenarist Gerald DiPego cater to neatly tying up all the loose narrative threads at fade-out nor pander to erratic attention-deficit style editing to ingratiate audiences with their lachrymose cops & lovers yarn. Instead, every scene in “Angel Eyes” portrays life as an experience where people sometimes cannot resolve conflicts. Mandoki and DiPego dole out plot details like bread crumbs to string us along, and this piecemeal strategy maintained my attention.

“Angel Eyes” will either intrigue you or will infuriate you entirely with the way they draw out the inevitable. They give their characters room enough to develop, and a gifted, first-class cast exploits every opportunity. Admirably, much of this provocative, above-average, but uneven ‘chick flick’ springs from the characters and their reactions to the obstacles thwarting their desires. Unwisely, Mandoki and DiPego rely on some plot contrivances that undercut credibility but deepen dramatic impact.

“Angel Eyes” opens in Chicago at the scene of a tragic traffic accident. Windy City cop Sharon Pogue (Jennifer Lopez of “Maid in Manhattan”) comforts an accident victim until the paramedics arrive. Mandoki and DiPego create an intriguing aura of mystery early on in the story, because the victim remains anonymous. Cleverly but effectively, they capture the action from the perspective of the injured passenger. A year elapses, and the main plot gradually begins to unfold. “Angel Eyes” depicts Sharon Pogue as a tough, resourceful, fearless police woman who can handle anything that the criminal element can dish out. She tackles one big hoodlum, body slams the dastard against the hood of her police cruiser, and the cuffs and stuffs him. Later, at the precinct house, the thug gives her lip and grabs her. Pogue roughs him up without a second thought, only to have her partner Robby (Terrence Howard of “Iron Man”) reprimand her. “Don’t bust my balls,” Pogue complains irritably as if she were a guy.

Indeed, shunning her glamorous pop diva persona, Lopez delivers a persuasive, rock-solid performance as a dedicated but lonely, insomniac cop with a woebegone past who prefers the graveyard shift. Basically, Sharon jailed her abusive father Carl (Victor Argo of “The Yards”) ten years ago for beating up her mother Josephine (Brazilian actress Sonia Braga of “The Rookie”), and bad blood has existed ever since between them. Essentially, her father disowned her after his arrest. Surprisingly, her mother invites her to attend a ceremony where they plan to renew their marriage vows. Sharon’s working class brother Larry (Jeremy Sisto of “The Suicide Kings”) isn’t overjoyed about seeing his hard-nosed sister. Eventually, Larry batters his own wife Kathy (Monet Mazur of “Mystery Men”) in a fit of rage. Arriving at the scene, Sharon slugs Larry in the mouth in front of her own brothers-in-blue! The cops refuse to arrest Sharon when Larry cries police brutality.

Later, Sharon is hanging out with fellow cops at a diner when black gunmen in a car wheel up and unload a fusillade of bullet at them. The fleeing gangstas wreck their car, and the cops chase them. Sharon pursues a lone gunman, and the suspect ambushes her. Shooting her twice in the chest, he takes aim at her face when a mysterious stranger intervenes. This unshaven Samaritan knocks the assailant off Sharon and saves her life! When Sharon recovers, she learns that her dark-haired hero in a trench coat calls himself Catch (Jim Caviezel of “Frequency”) and just happened to be across the street when the gunfight erupted. An awkward relationship blossoms from their chance encounter. Catch behaves as if he were suffering from amnesia. Despite Sharon’s attempts to draw him out in conversation, he refuses to talk about himself. Aimlessly, he wanders the streets at night and performs good deeds at random. For example, Catch spots a car with its headlamps burning. Opening the door, he reaches inside to switch them off. Just as he does, the angry owner accuses him of stealing. Catch decks himself out in a wardrobe like the Nicholas Cage character from director Brad Silverling’s “City of Angels,” but he is a flesh-and-blood entity, not an angel.

Eventually, Sharon and Catch date. At a state park on a picnic, they frolick in the lake, then get intimate on the beach. Unlike most citizens who ask Sharon how many people she has shot in the line of duty, Catch praises her for her unselfish sacrifices. Their oddball but believable relationship endures its share of ups and down like most real relationships. Specifically, Sharon comes clean about herself with Catch, but he retreats into silence or anger about himself as if he were playing hard to get. When Sharon’s suspicious partner Robbie can find nothing about Catch in the computers, she chews him out for snooping into her affairs. All too often police dramas feature cop partners who like each other so much that they are just too good to be true. Robby and Sharon tangle, and she isn’t afraid to tell him off. Their professional relationship sets “Angel Eyes” apart from the typical police saga.

Mandoki and DiPego use the gritty realism of a police story as ballast for their gauzy love story about two troubled souls. They establish everything that we need to know about Sharon, and then gradually peel away the layers of mystery from Catch’s taciturn character. No, “Angel Eyes” is not a romantic supernatural thriller like “The Sixth Sense” with ghosts and a surprise ending. Not only is it a straightforward, down-to-earth story with no automobile chases or noisy gunfights, but also the filmmakers juggle gender characteristics. They cast Lopez as an aggressive but sympathetic cop, while Caviezel plays a sensitive guy who refuses to confront his enigmatic past. At times, Catch appears to be playing hard-to-get, a trait more feminine than masculine. Sharon takes the lead in their unpredictable relationship and struggles to get reticent Catch to open up. Twenty years ago, Hollywood would have reversed the roles, with Catch trying to draw out Sharon. Sharon is active here while Catch is passive. The plot largely concerns the mystery surrounding Catch’s character. When Sharon finally solves the mystery about Catch, “Angel Eyes” rolls credits.

“Angel Eyes” rarely strays from the issues at hand. This character driven drama deals with sudden death, dysfunctional families, and spousal abuse, but it offers no facile answers. Like Mandoki’s earlier effort “Message in a Bottle,” “Angel Eyes” shows that life gives those a second chance at love that wants to take it. Like his even earlier movie “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Angel Eyes” shows that some of life’s problems lay beyond our reach to resolve them. Wow, how many movies seize life by the horns anymore? The romance between Sharon and Catch has depth with occasional interludes of comedy. Lopez and Caviezel share a chemistry that makes their affair seem not only credible but also interesting, too. They don’t behave like brainless, sugar-coated, na├»ve lovers. Pop tunes don’t blare on the soundtrack while the principals ride around in product placement sports convertibles. Indeed, “Angel Eyes” takes itself seriously and gets away with this sober attitude more often than not. Only when the coincidences seem really contrived, such as when Catch jumps Sharon’s assailant, does “Angel Eyes” blink.