Fallen (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Call it Touched by a Demon. Gregory Hoblit's Fallen is a serial killer movie with an unusual, horrific twist. If marketed properly, this film could have crossover appeal for both those who appreciate supernatural tales like The Prophecy and those who crave grim, dark thrillers like Silence of the Lambs andSeven. In fact, there's even a little Twin Peaks to be found here, albeit with the lion's share of the weirdness distilled out. (Remember BOB?) The biggest failing of Fallen is that, although it's consistently interesting, it's not always as edgy and suspenseful as one might hope.

A serial killer (Elias Koteas) has been on the loose in Philadephia, but Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington), the noblest man on the police force, has brought him to justice. Now, during his last hours on death row awaiting his inevitable date with the gas chamber, the mass murderer cryptically tells Hobbes, "What goes around really goes around." Shortly thereafter, he begins to sing "Time Is on My Side" as he's taken on his last walk. Minutes later, the State of Pennsylvania has carried out the execution and Edgar Reese is dead. But for Hobbes, the nightmare is just beginning, because Reese wasn't a normal psychopath – he was the host body for a mythical dark angel named Azazel. And, with Reese's death, Azazel is free to hop from body to body, murdering and wreaking havoc at will. Only Hobbes and a pretty, female theology teacher (Embeth Davidtz) have an inkling of what they're up against. The rest of the cops, including Hobbes' partner, Jonesy (John Goodman); Lou (James Gandolfini), a newcomer to the department; and Lieutenant Stanton (Donald Sutherland), don't have a clue, and, as a result, they are in mortal danger.

As depicted by Hoblit (Primal Fear) and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, Philadelphia is a dark, dreary place – a gothic city rather than a modern one. No skyscrapers or other monoliths of current architecture or technology are shown. The most famous landmark to appear isn't the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall; it's Geno's Steaks. Shadows and night scenes abound. The days are cloudy and unpromising. This is the kind of setting where it's easy to believe that fallen angels walk among men.

Fallen's plot is brimming with potential, not all of which is realized. Somehow, I would have expected a more frightening tale to emerge from something with this kind of premise. But the level of terror, like that of gore, is kept in check. Nevertheless, there are several creepily effective scenes as the spirit of Azazel moves from body to body when people bump against each other on crowded city sidewalks. The film also boasts a chase sequence of a kind that can best be described as unusual.

Of the several dozen actors to play Azazel, the best is by far Elias Koteas (Exotica, Crash), who, despite only being on screen for about ten minutes, gives a fantastically charged performance. John Goodman also seems to be enjoying himself, although his role for most of the film is relegated to that of a burly sidekick. Sadly, however, these two are the only ones who excel. Everyone else, including Denzel Washington, is boring.

Washington's flat performance is the most disappointing surprise of the film. It's not that he's bad per se, but he's not very interesting. There's no real sense of vulnerability or desperation in the way he portrays his character, and that keeps us distanced, however slightly, from Hobbes. As circumstances become progressively more dire for the cop, and as his life-or-death chess game with Azazel approaches the point of checkmate, I expected to be more on the edge of my seat than I was. Washington's subdued approach is part of the reason for this; I never felt a sense of urgency.

However, at least Washington was believable, which is more than can be said for Embeth Davidtz (Schindler's List) and Donald Sutherland. To be fair, the flaws in their characters aren't all acting-related; neither Stanton nor Gretta Milano are well-written. That said, however, there's nothing inspired about either Davidtz's or Sutherland's work. Both appear to be sleepwalking their way through the parts, as if they know that their contribution to the film is one of advancing the plot rather than developing a multi-dimensional individual.

Narratively, Fallen has a few glaring weaknesses. Although the plot proceeds with a convoluted, game-like structure, it uses a Denzel Washington-supplied voiceover to overexplain matters. At times, this is actually helpful, and it has a use beyond the obvious, but there are occasions when ponderous lines like "I like the night… Sometimes you come face to face with yourself" become a little hard to swallow. In addition, Fallen is saddled with the same kind of disgustingly bland, generic theology embraced by numerous movies and TV shows like Touched by an Angel.

However, despite the negatives, I'm still recommending Fallen on the strength of its complex plot and especially its ending, which I loved. The final scenes are startling, audacious, and unexpected. It's not often that a plot development takes me by surprise the way this one did. At a time when most movies fall apart in the last ten minutes, Fallen manages to buck the trend and redeem itself. This is not a great motion picture, but, considering how bad most January releases are, it's a reasonably entertaining way to spend two hours. And, whatever you do, don't walk out on the film before the end credits have begun to roll.

Fallen (United States, 1998)

Director: Gregory Hoblit
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, Embeth Davidtz, James Gandolfini, Elias Koteas
Screenplay: Nicholas Kazan
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Music: Tan Dun
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 1998-01-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1