Gregory Widen, the writer/director of this film has presented us with the marrow of a quintessential apocalyptic horror film. Some of the flesh of a solid plot is missing, but the concepts and perceptions soar right through our cortex. Widen is a successful writer. He wrote the scripts for all of the HIGHLANDER films, and the one for BACKDRAFT. He has only directed two films; this one [aka GOD’S WAR], and a television episode of TALES OF THE CRYPT (1989). He graduated from UCLA Film School, in the “writing” program. This was in 1986, just before he sold his first script, HIGHLANDER. He had worked as a firefighter for three years, and he witnessed the fiery death of a friend secondary to a backdraft. The script for Ron Howard’s excellent film grew out of this experience.

David C. Williams, a veteran of 33 other film compositions, composed the music for this film. Dennis M Tenney, primarily a sound mixer, who was also a musician, assisted him musically. Williams’ score was a bit pedestrian, but it sufficed. A Jerry Goldsmith, who had dramatically intensified THE OMEN with his brilliant orchestral score, might have better served the film.

Bruce D. Johnson did the cinematography. He has lensed on 17 other films, like HAPPY, TEXAS (1999), and DROWNING MONA (2000).

His chief camera operator was Richard Clabaugh, who actually teaches cinematography in North Carolina. He has worked on 14 other films. His set-ups and cinematic choices were appropriately creepy. I especially responded well to the angels suddenly appearing crouched like crows on the edge of a building, or a cliff; like the scene where Gabriel watched the schoolchildren in the playground below him.

One of the strengths of this film is Widen’s unique vision, his perverse and daring view of God’s darlings…the Angels. The angels in this film are formidable, and they rush about wreaking havoc. They can roar like demons, and are capable of killing like beasts. They certainly are not the happy winged cherubs and fairies of children’s stories; nor are they the gentle quiet compassionate romantic listeners of Wim Wender’s WINGS OF DESIRE, remade with Nicolas Cage in CITY OF ANGELS; nor are they comical, strutting, skirt-chasing, or sardonic like John Travolta playing MICHAEL; nor are they suave interlopers like Cary Grant was in THE BISHOP’S WIFE, or ineffectual well-meaning bumblers like Henry Traver’s Clarence in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. No, they are killers, assassins, thugs, and bullies; not afraid to tear out the entrails of children, or to resurrect the almost dead as servants. Oddly, they really do behave like the most fearsome winged creatures in history and myth; the vampires. It points up to us that demons are often just former heavenly creatures gone bad. From Lucifer on down, they are just fallen, confused, and misdirected. It narrows the celestial gap between the inhabitants of Heaven and the steaming hordes of Hell.

Gabriel: I am an angel. I kill newborns while their mamas watch. I turn cities into salt. And occasionally, when I feel like it, I tear little girls apart. And from now till kingdom come…the only thing you can count on…in your existence…is never understanding why.

The scenes between Lucifer and Gabriel are highly charged and original; dripping with sarcasm, humor, and irony.

Gabriel: This war is mine!

Lucifer: Your war is arrogance. That makes it evil, and that’s mine.

Heaven will become just another Hell, and that’s just one too many.

Gabriel: Lucifer. Sitting in your basement. Sulking about your breakup with the boss. You’re nothing!

Lucifer: Time to come home, Gabriel.

Gregory Widen may not be a Catholic, but his biblical principles are steadfast and fairly accurate. Gabriel, in his script, was chosen to be the primary antagonist, or was he the protagonist?

The name Gabriel means,” the might of God”. He is the Angel of Proclamation, of Consolation, and Incarnation. He is the Angel ministering to the Holy Spirit. Gabriel is also known as Fortitudo Dei, Abruel, Jibril, and Serafili. His personal images are the lily, shield, spear, and trumpet. He is considered God’s good right arm, his strength. He is an Archangel. There were only seven. Three are mentioned in the Bible; Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. Archangels stand directly before God, and they carry his messages; and that is primarily what distinguishes them from the Seraphim and Cherubim.

He is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. He is also mentioned in the Talmud, Torah, and even the Koran. He was the Angel that buried Moses. The Jews consider him the Angel of Judgment, and they feel that it was he that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. In Daniel, IX, it was Gabriel that prophesied the coming of Christ. It was Gabriel that appeared to the Virgin Mary, and informed her that she would be giving birth to the savior (Luke 1:25-30). He probably was the Angel that appeared to Jesus to strengthen him in the Garden. He appeared to Zachary, telling him that his son would be called John the Baptist (Luke 1: 11-20). He was the Angel who appeared to Joseph and the shepherds as Jesus slumbered in the manger. He is also the patron saint of communications and the Arts. He is the Governor of Eden. He rules First Heaven; the one closest to mankind. Gabriel was reputed to have been the Angel who inspired Joan of Arc to go to the aid of the King of France.

The poet Longfellow, in his THE GOLDEN LEGEND, made Gabriel “the Angel of the Moon”, who brings man the gift of hope. He watches over the unborn. Just before birth, after he has whispered to them and prepared them spiritually, he will touch the child’s upper lip. The sign of Gabriel is the cleft below the nose.

Gabriel: Do you know how you got that dent, in your top lip? Way back, before your were born, I told you a secret, then I put my finger there and I said “Shhhhh!”

All this incredible heritage, this ecclesial psuedo-history, and Widen had the temerity to choose Gabriel to be his villain. It was audacious, like casting the Pope as a pimp, and turning the Vatican into a palace of prostitutes. [Of course an argument could be made that through the absurd mandate of celibacy, that the Church has condoned and nurtured, even created pedophilia, homosexuality, and bestiality; but that is another issue entirely.] The other unique and original religious tweak was Widen having Angels lose their faith in God, losing their grace, and to allow them to fall prey to the pitiful emotions of jealousy and envy.

Thomas Daggett: Did you ever notice how in the Bible, whenever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what kind of creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?

Simon: I remember the First War. The way the sky burned, the faces of the angels destroyed. I saw a third of Heaven’s legion banished and the creation of Hell. I stood with my brothers and watched Lucifer’s fall. But now my brothers are not brothers, and we have come here where we are mortal to steal the Dark Soul, not yet Lucifer’s, to serve our Cause. I have always obeyed, but I never thought that War would happen again.

Gabriel: Simon, don’t you remember when we fought together? When we threw down the renegades?

Simon: They wanted to be gods.

Gabriel: I don’t want to be a god. I just want it back the way it was when He loved us best.

So we are confronted with Angels as spirits in search of a soul, who have learned to hate God for favoring man, “the talking monkey”. We are presented with a Gabriel who is angry with mankind being given souls. He didn’t feel that they deserved them. He was so enraged, so isolated, that he wanted to start a new War in Heaven, and he wanted an edge. He wanted the darker souls of mankind, snatched quickly before the Devil could welcome them, to assist him in his mad plan.

Thomas Daggett: If you wanted to prove your side was right, Gabriel, so badly, why didn’t you just ask him? Why didn’t you ask God?

Gabriel: Because he doesn’t talk to me anymore.

Gabriel is on a mission to ferret out, and then to snare, to enslave, to cajole the darkest soul he could find; the perfect killer. He has chosen an American former Army officer, who during the Korean War killed hordes of innocents. He was even accused of cannibalism. Too bad Lucifer already had dominion over the dark souls of Stalin, Hitler, and Jeffrey Daumer.

Lucifer: Humans…and how I love you talking monkeys for this…know more about war and treachery of the spirit than any angel.

This whole film was dominated, and carried on the wide shoulders of Christopher Walken as Gabriel. He wore a long black frock coat, like the angels of Wim Wenders, and those coat tails flapped menacingly as he strutted among us. He is such a gifted actor. He accentuated some of his own mannerisms and exaggerated some of his own gestures and inflections, pulling from his own unique persona, to create a character that will live in cinematic infamy. He wore yellowish contacts at times, making his eyes seem more demonic. His skin, already pale, was heightened with a chalk-white corpse-like pallor. His hot eyes seemed to burn out of that white face. He dyed his hair jet-black, or wore a fright wig, swirled straight up and back in his trademark pompadour; appearing like the specter of Elvis out for revenge. His black fingernails capped off the look. Whenever on the screen, he fused the scene with electricity. He ruled those moments. The other actors seemed dim in comparison. It has been said of him that Walken can be scary just whistling a happy tune.

Now Widen’s plot had plenty of holes and weak spots. Gabriel, as an Archangel, seems almighty one moment and felled by a jack handle the next. He can’t drive, and he needs a familiar [shades of Bram Stoker] to transport him around. The amount of “mortality” the angels accepted to function on this plane of existence seems inconsistent. Why not let them fly, or fold space and time and transport themselves in a moment, like a whisper? At times, when Gabriel is shot the impact will knock him down. Yet at other times he just shakes it off. So when an angel is transient, and partially mortal, and he is killed, is it all over for him? Without a soul does he become celestial rat chow? When the heart is ripped from his chest, where does he fit in amongst the great scheme of God’s plan? Has the all-powerful Archangel Gabriel been utterly and completely destroyed?

Refer to PROHESY II, III, IV, & V, I guess. Widen has my mind in a religious swirl. Since the angels are already spiritual creatures, who exist mostly on the other side, beyond the veil, what do they need a soul for? Our soul is defined as largely Spirit. After death, our life energy, our soul, transitions as Spirit back to the other realm, where angels already exist. We are two separate entities. Why the crossover? Since the entire plot of this film relies on this key point, perhaps Widen could have made it clearer.

The notion that century upon century has passed and all the “good” human souls are still trapped here, camped out on their festering corpses, because the great hotel of Heaven is closed, is quite a lot to grasp. The War in Heaven is stalled, in a stalemate. Since time is compressed, it is only we mortals who have noticed the passing of the millennium. But what about the Big Guy, the Godhead himself? Where is the lesson in all this, or the spiritual gain from all this isolation and pain? It is very existential to assume that God has just sat back in his golden corner of the cosmos, and let the humans and angels and demons work this out. After all Lucifer supposedly only has power and dominion because God allowed it, mandated it. So just because Gabriel and a ragged flock of rogue angels are envious of how much God favors mankind, where is even the tiniest bit of logic in Widen’s premise? How could this situation, this plotline, ever manifest itself without some degree of divine intervention?

Viggo Mortensen gave a powerhouse intense performance as Lucifer. This was a complex cameo; one that could have been thrown away on a lesser actor. He gave it tremendous gusto, power, and a creepiness that was unforgettable. With his slicked-back longish hair, and close-cropped beard, he reminded me of Robert De Niro in ANGEL HEART. Somehow he walked that acting tightrope between portraying consummate evil and inescapable logic. It wasn’t that he was expected to morph into a “Good Guy”; far from it. But he did intervene at an opportune moment, and he managed to save the day. He stopped Gabriel cold. After his role in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Mortensen is now a super star. But I remember being impressed by him way back in Sean Penn’s directorial debut, THE INDIAN RUNNER, and he was great as Demi Moore’s nemesis in G.I.JANE. He was always stardom just waiting to happen.

Lucifer: I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother’s feces; or, we can talk.

Lucifer: [on the souls of the dead] Some of them still come to me, because since the War began Heaven has been closed, while I, on the other hand, am always open; even on Christmas.

Lucifer: I was the first angel, loved once above all others. But like all true love…one day it withered on the vine.

Lucifer: [in a shrill whisper to Daggett] I love you! I love you more than Jesus!

Elias Koteas, a fine actor in his own right, was a bit overshadowed by Walken and Mortensen, but he did a pretty good job playing the tortured hero, Thomas Daggett. A failed priest, he was plagued by nightmares of a great bloody war in Heaven. Then, ironically, he became a police detective and he dealt with real murder and gore on a daily basis; rubbed shoulders with the dregs of the darkness. But for a man who had lost his faith, that kind of work seemed almost a penance, a kind of karmic solution. He, initially, became a spokesman for the faithless, and a righter of wrongs. But when the skies opened up, and the devil ravens swarmed all about, and his immortal soul was on the cum-line, Daggett recanted his faithlessness, and clung to his renewed faith, and his very human soul, with the tenacity of a drowning man. He was forced by circumstance and synchronicity to have to face down celestial and demonic beings, first Gabriel and then Lucifer himself. He jumped in like he was breaking up a street riot, leading first with his chin, and then with his heart.

Lucifer: Little Tommy Daggett. How I loved listening to your sweet prayers. Then you would hop into bed, afraid that I was hiding under it. And I was!

Daggett: Years later, of all the Gospels I learned in Seminary school, a verse from St. Paul stays with me. It is perhaps the strangest passage in the Bible, in which he writes: Even now in Heaven there are Angels carrying savage weapons.

Lucifer: You know what Hell really is Thomas? It’s not lakes of burning oil or chains of ice. It is more being removed from God’s sight. It is hard to believe…so hard. Think, Thomas, think. What is the one thing essential to an angel…the thing that holds his entire being together?

Daggett: Faith, faith, faith.

Lucifer: And what would happen if that faith were tested and an angel, much like you, didn’t understand? Use that, use it!

Daggett: I have my soul. I have my faith. What do you have, angel?

Lucifer: I’ll leave the light on, Thomas.

After the brimstone and feathers has cleared, Daggett had the final speech over the credits:

Daggett: In the end, I think it must be about faith, and it faith is choice, then it can be lost—for a man, an angel, or the Devil himself. And if faith means never completely understanding God’s plan, maybe just understanding a part of it—our part—is what it is to have a soul, and in the end, that’s what being human is, after all.

Virginia Madsen [the sister of actor Michael Madsen] played the generic love interest, Katherine Henley. She played a dedicated teacher that had stayed on at a school that was mostly shut down, combining all the grades, teaching the Navajo children as best she could. Some critics felt her part was superfluous, that the great swirling machinations of the plot could have survived without her feminine input. But I disagree. There was not really any “love” interest between her and Daggett. There were just thrown together by the extreme circumstances. Her part, although not strongly written, was an important piece of the puzzle. She gave it a feistiness and vulnerability that it needed.

Much of the storyline hinged on the plight of a young Indian girl, Mary; played by Moriah Shining Dawn Snyder. Of course the character’s name had to be Mary. But inside her was not a savior; rather she carried the evil Dark Soul of the military assassin and killer. And this time Gabriel was not dispatched by God to enlighten her. Gabriel was out to destroy her, to tear open her chest and pluck out its dark cargo, scattering her tiny limbs all over the landscape. When the evil soul possesses Mary, and it comes through, there are some nice shades of THE EXORCIST.

Young Mary needed protection. Madsen’s Katherine was there to stand between her and death. A lot of the action took place on the Indian Reservation. The final battle occurred on Old Woman Butte, while the holy men performed the Indian version of an exorcism. Widen gave us a pithy and alluring mix of culture and theology. He might have been suggesting that primitive people could come closer to Spirit than many civilized savages that inhabited the great cities. There was a lot to chew on, and to savor in this film.

Rounding out the cast was Eric Stoltz as Simon, the first angel we meet. He came to capture the Dark Soul, and to prevent Gabriel from retrieving it. When he was mortally wounded, and he decided to “deposit” that evil spiritual essence within the pristine confines of young Mary, things began to roll forward at breakneck speed. Stoltz, an underrated actor, was excellent in THE FLY II, WATERDANCE, KILLING ZOE, and ROB ROY. Some critics felt that he was too sensitive, too soft to be much of an adversary for Gabriel. They needed to rewatch the battle scene he had with the angel thug who had found him in the hotel. Simon was formidable enough, and Stoltz had just the right blend of gentleness and ferocity. Amanda Plummer, who is a fine actress, was delegated to playing the undead, the second familiar. Her dialogue consisted mostly of grunts, groans, and growls. But actors must work, so she cashed her paycheck, and remained invisible.

One critic called this film,” a bad movie with a good sense of humor”; rating it at 1.5 stars. Another said,” Most of film doesn’t work. Widen directed with a heavy hand, with very little concern for timing and pacing.” I think that although this film had some rough edges, there was a lot more to it than that. Widen had a tremendous concept and vision. The plot holes were highly visible, but the cast, especially Walken and Mortensen, elevated the material immensely. The staging of several of the scenes was quite memorable. Theology, horror, and anthropology mixed very well. It is a film that sticks with you. But even at that, I don’t think it merited four sequels. I consider it a very good “bad” movie, with an excellent premise, fraught with illogic and inconsistencies that challenge and entertain us in equal portions.

I gave this movie a rating of 2.5 stars
Glenn Buttkus (2004)