Angel Heart is a darkly entertaining film that applies the Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective template to a story steeped in mysticism. Within its smokey folds, a low-rent private eye (Mickey Rourke) will follow a trail of deception and murder from the hipster heights of Harlem to the sultry breezes of Louisiana in search of a missing Jazz singer. Along the way, the scruffy Rourke will encounter corrupt cops, Voodoo high priestesses and a few grisly sacrifices, both animal and human. But his greatest enemy will be his own cryptic history, and an ancient evil that ruthlessly seeks to exploit it.
Director Alan Parker and his favorite cinematographer Michael Seresin created an iconic visual language for the film, rich with dusky symbols and gloomy metaphors. It was a photographic style that appropriated, and was later appropriated by, popular music videos of the 1980s and 90s. Seresin’s dreamy images and Parker’s assured storytelling proved to be a winning combination, creating films that not only entertained, but told complex stories with clarity and charisma. As their combined filmography - which includes such popular titles as Midnight Express (1978), Fame (1980) and Angela’s Ashes (1999) - attests, Parker and Seresin were influential figures to a generation of filmmakers, and Angel Heart finds them at the top of their games.
Angel Heart also marked important milestones in the lives of its actors. Robert DeNiro, who plays Rourke’s mysterious employer Louis Cyphre, began to settle into middle-age with this performance, shifting away from the hyper-active, hyper-aggressive street punk persona that made him famous. For love interest Lisa Bonet, the film loudly announced that she had shed the adolescent larva of Denise Huxtable, and was now ready to be taken seriously in the full flower of womanhood.
And for Mickey Rourke, it was one of the last performances to fully capitalize on his distinct eccentricities. Despite a career as a dodgy tough guy, Rourke evoked a gentle, vulnerable quality often at odds with his cold-blooded characters. This trait enabled him to create fascinating portraits of thugs on the brink, only one nudge away from redemption, but ultimately undone by destiny. A few years after Angel Heart, Rourke would make a horribly wrong-headed choice to abandon acting for a career as a professional boxer. He endured so much punishment in the ring that his face had to be surgically rebuilt a number of times, costing him the tender, expressive quality that made him unique. Rourke now generally plays caricatures of his former self, with varying degrees of success. After watching his great work in Angel Heart, one can only wonder what might have been.