A far-fetched but entertaining thriller that will either be B.O. anathema or strangely relevant in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., “The Fourth Angel” follows the double life of a solid British citizen who mutates into a thinking-man’s Rambo after his wife and daughters are killed during a botched hijacking. Putting an educated Englishman in the Bruce Willis role and a black American in the Hercule Poirot slot makes the revenge scenario feel spruced up, if not entirely new. Story is a little quick to transform a law-abiding family man into an avenging angel, but motivations are solid across the board. Technically assured and suspenseful pic from vet John Irvin opened to OK numbers in France this August. But Stateside, Artisan seems already to have decided to bypass theatrical release, and homevid release date has been put off for at least a year, to late 2002.
Jack Elgin (Jeremy Irons), European editor at the Economist magazine in London, is a doting father to two girls and a young son. When their flight to India on an American carrier lands in Cyprus due to mechanical problems, hooded terrorists from the “August 15th Movement” hijack the plane and demand $50 million in ransom. The U.S. government coughs up.
As women and children are being evacuated, things go terribly wrong: The terrorists spray the tarmac with bullets as fuel leaks from the plane, and 15 passengers are killed, including Elgin’s wife and daughters.
Elgin is furious when the surviving hijackers are unaccountably released from custody and U.K. government officials can offer no more than lame protests. Off the record, Davidson (Jason Priestley), a U.S. State Dept. official, tells Jack that “officially our hands are tied,” but he encourages Jack to use his investigative reporting skills to track down the perps.
Elgin follows up on tips provided by a French diplomat buddy and by Kate (Charlotte Rampling), an enigmatic friend with an intelligence background. What was just a punchy dialogue scene for Rampling when pic was made takes on extra oomph in the current climate: “These people are the dregs, Jack. They have firepower the military envy. They don’t care who they kill or why. And they hate being looked for.”
In short order, Jack is breaking and entering like an Eton-trained Spider-Man, discovering weapons caches and riddling foreign nogoodniks with bullets from their own automatic weapons. When three notorious mercenaries turn up dead by London’s docks, FBI agent Jules Bernard (Forest Whitaker) arrives to assist the city’s anti-terrorism brigade — and to recover the hefty ransom.
Offbeat casting of Irons and Whitaker gives both thesps a chance to shine, and their joint presence unquestionably elevates the material. Whitaker, especially, is great fun as the laid-back pro whose sleuthing style differs radically from that of his British counterparts.
Efficiently lensed on London locations, pic touches upon the fact that Jack is betraying everything he ever believed in to create a semblance of justice in an unfair world. But the spurts of soul-searching are mere blips in a quasi-intellectual action movie with a veneer of plausibility and some nifty explosions. While some viewers may find the pic’s expedient politics objectionable and a little facile, the theme of corruption is actually given far more layered attention than in most actioners.
Tension aboard the aircraft and the ensuing mayhem are very well staged, but pic’s score is far too emotionally emphatic. Gratifyingly, the evil mastermind’s identity is not easy to guess.