German director Wim Wenders' 1987 film "Wings of Desire" was a woozy, delicious blur of late '80s romanticism, a combination of Old World melancholy, club scene cool and art film mystery -- all animated, Frankenstein-style, by a jolt of sheer hope, the giddiness of a nation on the verge of profound political renewal. Romance, though, is a delicate concoction, its success highly dependent on its context, like a cake whose recipe must be adjusted for higher altitudes. When "Wings of Desire" was released, for example, the notion that humanity is tended and consoled by legions of invisible angels was merely a lovely fancy of Wenders'. Now it's a Hallmark truism, the source of a booming industry in inspirational books and television shows in which pat little lessons are dispensed like Prozac.
Wenders' movie felt daring because it defied the pervasive cynicism and irony of its time, which was particularly fashionable among European aesthetes and the kind of Americans who went to see foreign films. "City of Angels," Brad Silberling's remake of Wenders' classic, opens in a mainstream American market where sentimentality rules. "Wings of Desire" devotees have good reason to dread "City of Angels" -- it would be so easy, in trying to feed the mass audience's sweet tooth, to reduce Wenders' divinity to leaden treacle.
That, fortunately, hasn't happened. Although "City of Angels" sometimes dances perilously close to the line between romance and schmaltz, it never crosses it, a nifty maneuver when you consider that the story deals with both love and spirituality, two areas land-mined with cant. In it, an angel named Seth (Nicolas Cage) stumbles upon Maggie, a young heart surgeon (Meg Ryan) entangled in doubts about the nature of her profession. "After all this time and all this work," she tells a friend, "I feel like none of this is in my hands. And if it isn't, what do I do with that?"
Seth, along with all the other overcoat-clad angels who watch over the city of Los Angeles, is charged with escorting the spirits of the dying to some unspecified other place, and also with soothing and guiding the living through their daily trials. Otherwise, they spend their time in the library (where they eavesdrop on the thoughts of readers, one of the charming conceits borrowed from Wenders) and perched atop skyscrapers, freeway signs and billboards, surveying the terrain. Seth falls in love with the beleaguered Maggie and must choose between an immortality without either the pain or the sensuality of physical existence and the option of becoming human.
Everyone, from the director to screenwriter Dana Stevens (Wenders gets a co-writing credit) to the performers, handles this heady material with restraint, and the result is a truly sincere, moving film that manages to distill a decidedly American version of the original's magic. In particular, cinematographer John Seales has breathed a passion for the beauty of the physical world into every frame. The movie's most striking images -- dizzying aerial shots of the angels standing sentry in their lofty outposts -- are lifted from "Wings of Desire," but Seales makes shots of a surgeon's hands deftly manipulating a glistening thread, or Maggie basking in the afternoon sun, or even the texture of the actors' faces, a reverent paean to the wonders of the flesh. Like the film's angels, the audience can only see and hear the events on-screen as we spy, unseen, on the characters. Seales brings us so close to smelling, feeling and tasting their world that Seth's longing for incarnation becomes our own.
Neither Ryan nor Cage indulges in their usual excesses -- hers a perky, chipmunk vivacity and his a rampant goofiness that's always struck me as disingenuous. She really shines here; stripped of glamour in sweat socks, scrubs and cropped hair, she makes not only a credible doctor but a straightforward woman with an evident and interesting inner life. Cage's performances always seem to be about his admiration for his own emotional "intensity" (he might as well be acting with blow-up dolls for all the effort he makes to really connect with his fellow actors), but he doesn't do much damage here. Like Dennis Franz, who plays a character analogous to Peter Falk (who played himself) in "Wings of Desire," Cage suffers mostly by comparison -- in Cage's case, to the soulful Bruno Ganz.
Despite its title, "City of Angels" isn't a valentine to L.A., although it wears its setting well. If Maggie's Mission-style bungalow and the magazine-perfect Lake Tahoe cabin where she trysts with Seth seem a bit too manicured, the film's snippets of freeway angst and hospital camaraderie feel funky, almost natural. Too often, movies this extravagantly emotional are given an overpolished, synthetic gloss that makes the experience of watching them feel vaguely carcinogenic. But "City of Angels" doesn't try too hard, doesn't lean on or overexplain its spiritual underpinnings and doesn't push for tears. As a result, it turns out to be pretty effective in drawing them.