Dark Angels (1998)

No relationship is perfect, but if one person is toxic it can be actively harmful to everyone. In what might normally be a wonderful milestone worthy of celebration, Angela (Je Nie Fleming) has just discovered she’s pregnant. When she reveals the good news over breakfast, her abusive husband, Demond (L. Sidney, credited here as Aklam) wants no part of fatherhood and demands that Angela go to a nearby clinic to “take care of it.” When she bristles at the suggestion, he hits her upside the head with a glass bottle and yanks out the tablecloth with enough force to send a perfectly good meal to the floor before storming off. (Moments before his violent outburst, he also complained about cheese in his eggs – just in case there was any remaining doubt he’s the villain).

Demond spreads more misery as he moves through the outside world. After roughing up a postal worker on his delivery route, he jumps into a truck to cruise around Atlanta with his friend, Saxson (Bobby ‘JoJo’ White). They visit a check cashing store (where Demond assaults a homeless person outside) and then go to a liquor store (where Demond brings a random lady back to the truck for unstated antics). For a violent jerk who hates cheese on his eggs, his day is going well so far.

In parallel, Angela is driving down a country road and listening to a radio sermon when her car runs out of gas. Unable to flag down a passing vehicle on the road for a lift, she notices a church nearby, and she approaches. She meets Pastor Garvin (John Burton Jr.), who senses that Angela is worried and offers to listen to her troubles. She describes her turbulent life with the abusive Demond, but some part of her resists reporting him to the police for fear that he’d go back to jail for the parole violation. The pastor offers prayer as a soothing balm, but Angela scoffs at the idea it will help anything. The pastor offers platitudes that “God works on his own schedule” and “be careful what you pray for, you might get it.” He also mentions that God communicates with people through dreams, and this is where things get truly strange.

Angela describes a recurring dream to the pastor where she is either killing or being killed, and she’s curious about the possible meaning of it all. In the dream, Demond is the head of Atlanta’s drug empire and Saxson is his second-in-command. Angela has blonde hair that makes her look like Lil’ Kim or Faith Evans. Other people from her real-life neighborhood are characters in this world, from the local corner drug dealer (Anthony Johnson) to the postal worker. There are corrupt cops trying to get their cut. There’s even a pet rat that climbs all over Demond’s shoulders, and it takes baths in the sink. After rejecting a deal to work with Demond and import coffins stuffed with narcotics from South America, the local mortician, Charles Maine (Louis Murray) and his apprentice, Rodrigo (Roberto Gutierrez) wage war on his operation by moonlighting as crime-fighting superheroes, complete with disguises straight out of THE SHADOW and THE GREEN HORNET. There are also four knights on horseback that occasionally show up to take out the evildoers. There’s a story somewhere in here, but it has the sort of plot you’d expect to creep into your dreams if you ate an entire pepperoni pizza and fell asleep watching DEEP COVER and woke up to a 1960s crime-fighting serial action drama before falling asleep again. Will Angela figure out what the dream represents and apply its lessons in her waking life?

As a low-budget indie film that sandwiches a crime-drama slathered with martial arts, drug-dealing, and stylized vigilante justice between thick slabs of Christian sermonizing, DARK ANGELS is one of the oddest movies I’ve ever seen. If you’d prefer a different food-based metaphor, director David Wadley uses action movie conventions as a tasty peanut butter coating to mask the strong dose of moralistic medicine he wants viewers to absorb. What I’m trying to say is that if you don’t like the preachy parts, you can certainly eat around them, but the whole dish works best if you mix it around on your plate before taking bites.

The middle “dream” section feels like an early effort from direct-to-video action movie factory, PM Entertainment. Consistent with their production template, the central story thread pits a pair of protagonists up against a sprawling web of villains, with each vanquished in a series of increasingly brash action set-pieces. The fight scenes with Roberto Gutierrez’s Rodrigo character are lively and sometimes acrobatic, even if the final presentation of them is a little flat (i.e., not a ton of attention to the shooting angles or editing rhythm, and one of the fights is staged in what appears to be either a hotel conference room or ballroom). The crown jewel might be the scene where a ginger-haired baddie with an eye-patch and walrus mustache is tied up and forced to smoke narcotics — by the heroes! — until his hotel room explodes (they turned on the gas in his kitchenette before slinking out). While their methods are far from heroic, they are effective.

Nothing is more suggestive of the biblically bizarre and fantastical qualities of Angela’s dreamworld than the faceless “four horsemen” who interject at random and dispense swift, sword-based justice across the Atlanta city-scape. All of the sinners who need to see the light are instead treated to a fatal jab to the eye. Overall, the big explosions and stunt-work in DARK ANGELS are executed competently and look good for a low-budget film. Some of the concluding sections of such scenes are shot on almost totally darkened sound-stages; this may have been as much a budgetary choice as a narrative one, but it enhances the dramatic effect while underscoring the otherworldly feel of the “dream” within the film. Is this final setting meant to be a void between worlds? A sinner’s purgatory or limbo? An astral plane? This might be over-thinking, but its repeated use and placement is an intentional stylistic choice by the director, worthy of some surface examination at the very least.

As his story goes, director David Wadley started his early filmmaking career working production assistant jobs on Hollywood sets — including PANTHER (1995) and TALES FROM THE HOOD (1995) — before he had a spiritual awakening and committed his life to Christianity. Not content to put down the camera, he made this film on his own terms – shooting a feature production in Atlanta, GA, supported by a cast of mostly black actors and people of color – that melded the popular genre tropes of that action era with his perspective on life and death, informed by his religious calling. His career as a director didn’t progress from there, but Wadley pivoted to sound services for a variety of high-budget film and television productions, from THE STEVE HARVEY SHOW and SCOOBY-DOO (2002) to TRAINING DAY (2001).

So, does it all work? There are aspects of Wadley’s execution that leave room for improvement. Demond’s real-world behavior and reactions are so extreme and disproportionate that it’s hard to imagine how someone ever agreed to marry him in the first place. There is over-acted line delivery (“I’M ON THE PILL! THE BABY WAS AN ACT OF GOD!”) and some try-hard humor (a waiter named Chihuahua, and a visual gag involving petroleum jelly that precedes a fatal hit in a restaurant). Given the low-budget constraints, I still had fun with it overall and the film seems most at home playing with the action movie tropes within the sandbox of the protagonist’s dreamworld, and seasoning them with Wadley’s unique perspective.

2 comments

  1. It’s been a while since I watched a faith-based joint, and one that mixes it up with an early-era PM Entertainment style sounds too intriguing to pass up. Speaking of which, come on, GOD’S NOT DEAD franchise, throw a shootout or a kick somewhere in there. I’m gonna have Cynthia Rothrock as a nun in my faith-based actioner that I just made up right now.

    Also, can’t speak for Demond, but despite loving cheese and loving eggs, I have to really be in the right mood for cheese eggs.

    Liked by 1 person

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