In a lot of ways, Neil Jordan's Angel – the Irish director's melodramatic debut – feels like a warm-up for the sort of ambitious, emotionally gripping, socially conscious work he would become known for. It doesn't quite attain the power it's seeking, and it's awfully rough around the edges, but there are moments when it becomes obvious that you're looking at the work of a hungry young director who's planning on making something of himself.

The film tells the story of Danny (Stephen Rea, The Crying Game), a saxophone player with a ratty-looking mullet, a rumpled suit and a perpetual air of weariness. He plays with a small Irish band, traveling around the country and playing at various nightclubs and other low-rent venues. He may have the appearance of an amateur, but his sax solos are soulful, passionate and raw. He probably ought to be a bigger star than he is, but he has a serious drinking problem that has held him back. When he isn't drowning his sorrows with whiskey, he's doggedly pursuing the women he encounters.

Danny isn't exactly a suave charmer (he always looks like he needs a bath, and his small talk isn't exactly riveting), but his musical skills are enough to ensure that he doesn't have to spend many nights alone. One evening, he begins making moves on a young deaf-mute woman at a dance hall in South Armagh. They hit it off, and the film begins to look and feel like a tender, unconventional romance. There won't be much time for such pleasantries: the manager of Danny's band is shot down in cold blood (it seems he was involved in some shady business deals that went south), and the girl – who witnessed the murder – is killed shortly thereafter. Danny goes into a personal tailspin, and quickly determines that he must have revenge.

As in later Jordan films, revenge proves a complicated, messy thing in Angel (released as Danny Boy in the U.S. in order to avoid confusion with a porn film making the rounds at the time). The more people Danny kills (and he kills quite a few of them), the more of himself he loses. He's not the only one who suffers: his on-and-off relationship with Deirdre (Honor Heffernan) – the band's lead singer – begins to deteriorate in some fairly alarming ways. Rea's face has always had a sad, weathered quality (even here, where he's a good deal younger than the version of him you're probably thinking of right now), and that face is put to good use as Danny stumbles through his vain, violent quest. The character's increasingly messy mental state tends to be matched by an increasingly disheveled appearance: cuts, bruises, dirty suits, unfinished haircuts.

Rea finds the right tone for Danny, but otherwise, the performances tend to be a little flat, and Jordan struggles to generate much tension in scenes that ought to be nail-biting. Maybe it's a deliberate attempt to avoid presenting the movie as a juiced-up thriller, or maybe he simply tried and failed to turn the film's more violent sequences into something gripping. Either way, Angel is at its best when Danny has his saxophone in his hands, as Jordan fills long, languorous scenes of musically-charged melancholy with memorably dreamlike imagery and indelible jazz melodies.

The film is largely set in Northern Ireland, and the Troubles of the era have a way of lingering over the film without ever quite entering it directly. Jordan has often been fond of using metaphors and parables to make statements about the modern world, and here addresses the senseless violence of his home country by serving up another tale about the cycle of endless bloodshed. One person after another is murdered, but no one is ever satisfied and no conflict is ever ended. The beautiful music sends us up into the clouds for a brief moment... and then we tumble back down into the mud, blood and sorrow of the world we live in. This is a clunky but admirably ambitious debut.


Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 1982