A Prayer for the Living
Opening 29 years ago yesterday on a date that would later become explosively fused with the tragic specter of global terrorism, A Prayer for the Dying (1987) was an ambitious attempt, based on a novel by prolific best-selling espionage novelist Jack Higgins (The Eagle Has Landed, Eye of the Storm) to depict the crisis of conscience in the soul of a guilt-ridden loner who kills so-called strategic military targets for a cause but draws the line at the taking of innocent lives. Irish Republican Army assassin Martin Fallon (Mickey Rourke) has crossed that line: the latest bomb strike he and partner Liam Docherty (Liam Neeson) intended for a British Army caravan instead blew up a school bus that turns up unexpectedly. The tragedy leaves a sorrow he cannot shake, a self-condemnation for which he sees no path to absolution, and a determination to leave his past behind. He is offered a chance to escape: if he will execute one final hit at the behest of a crime kingpin Jack Meehan (Alan Bates), he’ll get a rich payoff and passage to the U.S. Reluctantly taking on the job, Fallon dispatches the target but encounters one last hurdle: the killing has been witnessed by a priest (Bob Hoskins), whom Meehan insists must also now be taken out or there will be no payout or freedom. Movie explorations of the mind of a killer are manifold, but director Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Croupier, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead) and star Rourke, whose outlier screen persona made The Pope of Greenwich Village, Angel Heart, Barfly and later The Wrestler connect with audiences, mine deeper territory here in the film’s milieu of Protestant vs. Catholic Ireland. Primarily a suspense tale, it also powerfully explores the capacity for good in those bearing the mark of Cain as well as the potential for righteous violence to erupt inside the intrinsically noble, as embodied in soulful Rourke and fervid Hoskins. With anonymous, fevered terrorist movements so much on the mind in our charged, politicized world, A Prayer for the Dying, in its specific, personalized storytelling and thriller format, deftly and searchingly poses the question of whether hard-hearted souls can be saved from destructive paths – and whether we all have the diligence to suppress the darker impulses in our own nature. Like its conflicted lead character, A Prayer for the Dying had a troubled production history itself, reflected in interviews with director Hodges and cinematographer Mike Garfath on Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray, but its solid performances and simmering tension still provide riveting and ultimately thoughtful entertainment.