A Prayer for the Dying Review
When a bombing goes accidentally wrong and blows up a school bus, IRA man Martin Fallon (Mickey Rourke) goes on the run. In London, he meets gang boss Jack Meehan (Alan Bates) who arranges for Fallon to escape to the USA in return for one last job. That is to kill a rival crime boss, which Fallon does…but the act is witnessed by local priest – and former SAS man – Father Da Costa (Bob Hoskins)…
Adapted from a Jack Higgins novel, A Prayer for the Dying is a film with a troubled history, which remains watchable despite some considerable flaws. The film was taken away from its director, Mike Hodges, and re-edited, to the extent that Hodges tried unsuccessfully to remove his name from the final version. The film was then rather controversially selected as the opening film of the 1987 London Film Festival, only to be pulled at the last minute due to the IRA’s bombing of Enniskillen. Hodges’s cut has never seen the light of day, so it’s hard to say how much of an improvement it would be, but his professional job of direction is one of the film’s saving graces. It’s hard to see how he could have overcome the clichés in Edmund Ward’s script, not to mention some downright ludicrous moments. And that’s without reckoning on the misuse of some talented actors.
Mickey Rourke actually gets off lightly. Recent comebacks notwithstanding, his period of stardom spanned most of the eighties. A Prayer for the Dying stands fairly close to the end of it, with some career-killing choices (Wild Orchid, anyone?) just over the horizon. The Northern Irish accent is reckoned to be one of the hardest to imitate: I’ll leave it for others to judge the finer points of Rourke’s attempt at it, but I’ve heard far worse. For much the film, he underplays, relying on his presence to carry the film. (Oh, and he can play the organ. So he’s not just a heartless killer then. He has a Soul.) Bob Hoskins is simply miscast, completely unable to reconcile a part which requires him to be an ex-SAS soldier and a man of God. The scene where he beats up some of Meehan’s henchmen with the aid of some dustbin lids raised a big laugh when I saw this in the cinema. On the other hand, Alan Bates overacts. The scene where he uses woodworking tools to attach one of his men to the wall while ranting about how his mother used to prostitute herself to bring him up, is pretty close to high camp.
Most of the supporting cast make little impression, notably Liam Neeson and Alison Doody as Fallon’s former IRA colleagues on his trail, victims of underwritten roles. Sammi Davis plays Anna, Da Costa’s blind niece. Many reviewers at the time, myself included, tipped her for big things that haven’t materialised. (Her only appearance in a UK-released film in the last fifteen years was Four Rooms, in which she appears rather embarrassingly in the Allison Anders segment.) This isn’t one of the performances that impressed me at the time: her character is a collection of blind-girl clichés, played in too fey a manner. (And the biggest cliché of all is a very sentimental one, that it takes a blind girl to see the finer side of a hardened killer.) Bill Conti’s score (which replaced one by John Scott in Hodges’s cut) is overblown, overusing such musical Irishry as pipes and jew’s harp.
There are some decent action sequences, but it’s hard to see how this film would ever have been more than misbegotten. And as this is a back-catalogue release from MGM, it doesn’t receive much of a DVD release either.
A Prayer for the Dying is given an anamorphic transfer in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The result is too soft, but otherwise colours are true and shadow detail is fine.
The film was released in cinemas with an analogue Dolby Stereo soundtrack, which on DVD translates to a surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0 track. The result is quite immersive, using the surrounds for the score and some directional sound. Although there’s no LFE track, some bass does get redirected, notably in the bus explosion near the beginning. The German-dubbed track is of the same specifications, while the French and Italian dubs are in mono. The Polish track uses a voiceover translation over a Dolby Surround version of the English-language soundtrack, with the dialogue mixed down. There are a range of subtitle options. The menu choices are in the first four of the soundtrack languages, and use the standard-issue MGM symbols rather than words. There are no extras at all, not even a trailer. The DVD is encoded for Regions 2 and 4.
A Prayer for the Dying is worth a look, once, but I suspect only completist fans of the director or any of the leading actors will want to buy it. In which case, I’d suggest doing so as cheaply as possible.