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Case Number 04593

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The Fourth Angel

Artisan // 1997 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // June 11th, 2004

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All Rise...

Then Appellate Judge Michael Rankins poured out his bowl on the sun, and power was given to him to scorch really bad movies with fire.

The Charge

They took everything he had. Revenge is all that's left.

Opening Statement

"Then the fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and power was given to him to scorch men with fire."—Revelation 16:8

"Do you not know that we shall judge angels?"—1 Corinthians 6:3

"So let's judge The Fourth Angel already, and be done with it."—Appellate Judge Michael Rankins, DVD Verdict

Facts of the Case

When Jack Elgin (Jeremy Irons, The Time Machine) told his wife he was taking the family on a vacation, she envisioned a relaxing excursion to sun-dappled Corfu, not a businessman's holiday in India for her journalist husband, the European editor of The Economist. Jack himself envisioned a chance to simultaneously seize a plum reporting assignment and spend a smidgen of quality time with his fetching missus and their three offspring. Neither envisioned landing smack-dab in the middle of a botched hijacking that would end with 15 passengers—including Mrs. Elgin and the two Elgin daughters—gunned down in a fusillade of bullets on an airport runway.

Now Jack does what men in the movies always do when their families get snuffed by evildoers. He straps on some semi-automatic firepower and sets off on a steely-eyed campaign of blazing vengeance against the terror cell that killed his loved ones—"scorching men with fire," as in the Biblical allusion that titles this tale. Dogging Jack's trail as he puts a serious dent in the local ammunition supply is American agent Jules Bernard (Forest Whitaker, Panic Room), who's cooperating with Scotland Yard on anti-terrorist activities, and who suspects that everyone's favorite widower journalist may be up to a little anti-terrorist activity himself. And then there's that snaky Yank (Jason Priestley, Beverly Hills 90210) from the ubiquitous three-letter agency (no, not the IRS—after all, this isn't a horror film) who also may be up to something, but no one's quite certain what. Not to mention Jack's ex-intelligence operative friend Kate (Charlotte Rampling, Swimming Pool, Spy Game), who feeds him handy tips on the movements of various underground factions while she lounges on the deck of her sailboat and spouts pithy platitudes apparently gleaned from the fortune cookies in last night's Chinese takeout.

Will Jack put all the bad dudes in pine boxes before Bernard gets the goods on him? Will the terrorists prove to have connections in high governmental places that no one ever suspected? And will the producers of this movie figure out that there's no "s" at the end of "Revelation" before the closing graphic goes up? As Meat Loaf once sang, two out of three ain't bad.

The Evidence

Death Wish with European accents. Or Collateral Damage without the Governator. Take your pick.

Don't get me wrong; revenge stories have long provided honorable fodder for the film industry, and no doubt will again. Some of the most memorable pictures ever made—The Searchers, Unforgiven, and Gladiator are just three that pop immediately into mind—have taken the grieving-man-on-a-rampage scenario and run to lofty heights with it. The perceptive reader will, however, note that the aforementioned films are all period pieces, set in wilder, woolier, and less civilized times. Homicidal vigilantism seems infinitely less heroic when portrayed against the backdrop of modern industrial society, with its more acutely defined system of jurisprudence. In today's world, the self-appointed avenging angel looks little better than the devilish terrorists and anarchists he ventilates (think The Punisher, in either Thomas Jane or Dolph Lundgren varieties).

Seen in this harsh light, The Fourth Angel is merely another hackneyed revenge shoot-'em-up served cold over a heap of warmed-over action film clichés. Indeed, the Action Film Cliché Fairy was so generous to this production, what fun there is to be had in watching it comes largely from ticking off the formulaic elements as they dart across the screen. Let's see now—there's:

• The mild-mannered husband and father with no history of Special Forces training, who suddenly transmogrifies himself into a slickly methodical one-man Black Ops unit at the drop of a plotline.
• The conflicted law-and-order type who can't bring himself to haul in the revenge killer he knows is guilty, because at some level he identifies with the poor schlub.
• The warm and fuzzy family dynamic that's established by (a) a kid with a camcorder videotaping the family's candid household moments, and (b) Dad and Mom sitting shiny-eyed in the audience at the kids' school play.
• The supposedly helpful good-guy character whose true nature is so obvious from the instant the character first appears that one wonders why the filmmakers' regard for our native intellect is so low that they suppose we can't figure it out.

Get the picture? If you stare closely enough at the screen, you can almost see the faint outlines with the tiny numbers into which journeyman director John Irvin painted this film. Irvin, whose career has pingponged between tepid action flicks (Raw Deal with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Next of Kin with Patrick Swayze) and decent but forgettable human dramas (the middle-aged love story Turtle Diary, the Vietnam battle saga Hamburger Hill), is just going through the motions here, imbuing this stock storyline with all the surface tension of overcooked ramen noodles.

The key members of the cast—Jeremy Irons, Forest Whitaker, and Charlotte Rampling, fine actors all, here shamefully misused—look painfully embarrassed to be seen in this misfire. Jason Priestley, whose years opposite Shannen Doherty and Tori Spelling on BH9er no doubt robbed him of any inherent capacity for embarrassment, looks befuddled instead. Original Miss Moneypenny Lois Maxwell, who tosses in a cameo as the materfamilias, just looks happy to be working in front of the camera again.

Speaking of casting…whereas Whitaker essentially spins yet another variation on the character he's been recycling ever since The Color of Money—the puppy-eyed sad sack who's a good deal smarter than he appears—and Rampling continues to add to her growing string of recent wise-older-woman roles, one can only wonder what happy herb the casting director was smoking who lined up Jeremy Irons for this part. Irons's desert-dry line readings and icy, stone-faced demeanor serve him well when he's playing a character who's either villainous (Alan Rickman's long-lost brother in the third Die Hard picture) or creepy (Humbert Humbert in Adrian Lyne's Lolita remake) or both (the unforgettable Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune), but he's simply the wrong actor to portray an emotionally shattered family man with whom the audience must empathize for the film to have a prayer of success. His rote physical manifestations of grief (oh, please, Mr. Irons—not the old "snapping the pencil in an enraged fist" gambit, for pity's sake) ring hollow coming from a guy whose onscreen persona is stark, soulless, and—let's be frank here—more than a trifle fey.

Couple the rehashed script and I'm-only-here-for-the-paycheck acting with production values that look as though the film cost less than the entire late-night Grand Slam menu at Denny's, and The Fourth Angel makes for a wearying evening in front of the tube. Small wonder that this tired turkey skipped the whole theatrical experience in favor of the thrills and excitement of the direct-to-video market.

The creative and emotional poverty of The Fourth Angel is no excuse for its shoddy presentation on DVD, especially given that it's a direct-to-video release that will never be seen in any other format. But then, we're talking about the handiwork of the late, unlamented Artisan, now swallowed up by the Lions Gate imprint. [Note: this review is based upon the original Artisan release. As is its wont with the product it acquired in the Artisan buyout, Lions Gate has recently re-released this disc under its own imprint. I'm informed that the new release is identical to the previous.] To be Simon Cowell blunt about it: This film looks dreadful, in classic Artisan fashion. Combine a grainy, occasionally off-colored print with an embarrassing wealth of digital defects—I haven't seen this much pixelation (in every dark, shadowy scene) and overrendered edge enhancement (in every reasonably bright scene) in one place in quite some time—and you'll be reaching for the Visine long before the third act. One can select from both anamorphic widescreen and full-frame options, but neither is superior in quality to the other (though if you're consciously choosing the pan-and-scan version, a pox on your house). On the audio side, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack delivers a generally uninvolving underwhelming listen, with a flat, compressed quality that matches the dull appearance of the video. (The prospect of trying the stock stereo track was simply too depressing to contemplate.)

At least there's only a handful of trailers (in addition to the trailer for The Fourth Angel, we get ads for Terminator 2: Judgment Day: Extreme Edition, 29 Palms, The Target, Guilty By Association, and an assortment of Artisan Special Edition DVDs) to prolong the experience any more than absolutely necessary.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

I kept waiting for Irons—in that sinuous, bloodcurdling baritone—to murmur something on the order of "Long live the King" or "Oh, goody" as he pumped hot lead into one of his terrorist victims. But ironically (ahem), it's Charlotte Rampling who gets to steal a line from The Lion King: "All you can do is remember who you are."

Mufasa? Is that you? And what have you done with Charlotte Rampling?

Closing Statement

As Alexander Pope once observed, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Only fools would rush to the local video outlet to pick up The Fourth Angel—fools, and those eager doomsday fans persuaded by the meaningless apocalyptic title that this is that next installment in the Left Behind series that they so eagerly await. But then, I repeat myself.

The Verdict

The Court has judged this Angel and found it sorely lacking. All involved with the production of this time-waster are hereby sentenced to a marathon showing of all five Death Wish movies. Unless, of course, they sat through those before they made this. Which they might have. In that case, they'll instead have to write "There is no 'S' in Revelation" on the whiteboard 100 times each.

We're adjourned.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 72
Audio: 81
Extras: 5
Acting: 80
Story: 69
Judgment: 72

Perp Profile

Studio: Artisan
Video Formats:
• 2.55:1 Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Finnish)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Spanish
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Action
• Drama
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Theatrical Trailer
• Bonus Trailers


• IMDb

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