Described by its producer as ‘very loosely based on some of the ideas’ in the eponymous 1955 movie about convicts on the lam, We’re No Angels is precisely about a pair of jailbirds on the run. The year is 1935 and Robert De Niro and Sean Penn are hard-timers in a hellish north country penitentiary that may be a metaphor for Depression-era America.
The late, great Ray McAnally, reduced here to a caricature of cruelty as the Big House warden, forces the heroes to witness the electocution of a remorseless murderer. But the condemned con and two heroes pull an improbable breakout and head for the Canadian border.
De Niro and Penn reach a remote border town renowned for a shrine of ‘the weeping Madonna’ and a monastery. The town is swarming with police on their trail, but the cons are happily mistaken for visiting ecclesiastical scholars. Director Neil Jordan and screenwriter David Mamet thus set the stage for a parable about virtue, wisdom, faith and redemption.
Pug-faced, slack-jawed and marble-mouthed, De Niro and Penn mug their semiarticulate proles with relish, but as religioso fish out of water their con game becomes a tiresome joke.