Devil's Advocate, The (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate has many laudable qualities, but subtlety is not among them. The story, which postulates that the devil is walking among us today, gives Satan's human alter-ego a truly obvious name: John Milton (for those who don't know, he wrote the landmark poem about man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, "Paradise Lost"). And, in what is arguably the most believable aspect of the movie, The Devil's Advocate takes lawyer-bashing to its logical extreme by making Lucifer the head of a prestigious law firm. Of course, since it's fashionable to attack attorneys these days, the zeal with which the movie launches into its barrage on the profession (law is referred to as Satan's "new priesthood") is guaranteed to strike a responsive chord with audiences. See what I mean -- no subtlety.

That being said, The Devil's Advocate is a highly-enjoyable motion picture that's part character study, part supernatural thriller, and part morality play. Although the film isn't a landmark combination of unique elements (viewers will find themselves reminded of both The Witches of Eastwick and The Firm), it has a lot of energy and the rather long 145-minute running time passes quickly. Co-writer Tony Gilroy (The Cutting Edge, Dolores Claiborne), who was brought in by director Hackford (Dolores Claiborne) to expand upon Jonathan Lemkin's original adaptation of Andrew Niederman's novel, has produced a script that transcends any one specific genre, criss-crossing back and forth from horror to satire to melodrama.

The Devil's Advocate's protagonist is Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), a Florida prosecutor-turned-defense attorney who has never lost in more than 60 cases. Kevin's approach to a trial isn't that it's a forum for justice, but a game to be won or lost -- and he is willing to do anything for victory, even if he knows that his client is guilty (the official term for this kind of person is a "sleazeball"). When he successfully gains an acquittal for an accused child molester in a difficult-to-win case, he attracts the attention of a big-time New York lawyer (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), who invites Kevin and his beautiful wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), to Manhattan to meet the head of his firm. Once there, Kevin finds himself being offered a very attractive job by the charismatic John Milton (Al Pacino). But John isn't just a very powerful attorney and astute businessman -- he's the devil incarnate -- and he has special plans for Kevin.

During the course of his long and varied career, Al Pacino has played the good (...And Justice for All), the bad (The Godfather), and the ugly (Scarface), but this is his first chance to play Satan, and he accomplishes the task with his usual panache. Of course, this is the kind of over-the-top role that Pacino plays best, and his virtuoso performance comes complete with a pair of the kind of monologues that he does better than anyone else working in Hollywood today. Of all the recent approaches to this role, Pacino's Dracula-esque method stands alongside the work of Jack Nicholson (The Witches of Eastwick) and Max von Sydow (Needful Things) as the most memorable.

Although the spotlight shines squarely on Pacino, there are other actors in the film. And, while Pacino's performance is the best, it's not the most surprising. That distinction goes to the work of the usually-wooden Keanu Reeves, who is actually believable in his part (despite a Southern accent that can best be described as "inconsistent"). There are times when Reeves lacks the subtlety that would have made this a more multi-layered portrayal, but it's nevertheless a solid job. Spicy Chalize Theron (Trial and Error) is fine as Mary Ann, bringing equal parts sex appeal and pathos to a surprisingly well-developed role. Supporting players include Judith Ivey as Kevin's Bible-thumping mother, Jeffrey Jones as the law firm's managing partner, Craig T. Nelson as an "is he or isn't he guilty" client, and Connie Nielson as the tempting fruit dangled in front of Kevin.

Aside from Pacino's performance, the greatest strength of the film is its delicious build-up to an operatic climax. And, although huge parts of The Devil's Advocate are overblown and overplayed, it's never as silly as it has the potential to be -- and this quality consistently keeps the picture out of the dangerous realm of self-parody. The movie's greatest weakness is its ending, which, by trying to be too clever, ends up cheating the audience of a legitimate conclusion. While there's a sense of closure, it's not an especially satisfying one.

Oddly enough, with two of the most high-profile horror films of the year (Scream 2 and An American Werewolf in Paris) slated for a December release, The Devil's Advocate may be the best option for a "Halloween flick," and the pairing of Pacino and Reeves should assure it a healthy bow at the box office. It doesn't hurt that the script is more intelligent that one might initially suppose and that the storyline is developed better than the theatrical previews cause it to appear to be. The Devil's Advocate certainly has problems, chief of which is the subtlety thing, but Pacino's performance is so fun to watch that it eclipses the most significant of them.

Devil's Advocate, The (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 1997-10-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1