Screenplay : Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy (based on the novel by Andrew Neiderman)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Al Pacino (John Milton), Keanu Reeves (Kevin Lomax), Charlize Theron (Mary Ann Lomax), Craig T. Nelson (Alexander Cullen), Judith Ivey (Mrs. Lomax), Jeffrey Jones (Eddie Barzoon)
It's not much of a stretch to imagine the devil making himself comfortable here on earth in the guise of a lawyer. Why not? Lawyers are paid to know the law and how to work the law to the advantage of their clients. When you're responsible for keeping the richest and most powerful men in the world out of jail, that gives you a pretty firm grasp on the strings that play the world. How better for the devil to have his way with humankind?
This is the premise of "Devil's Advocate," a stylish and entertaining new thriller that has the bold sense to plop Al Pacino in the shoes of the Satan himself. Cackling and leering, Pacino puts on a great show, investing enough in his character to make him evil, but not so much that we think he's truly serious. In "Devil's Advocate," Pacino plays Satan as a randy, flamboyant trickster who likes to be in the thick of things.
The thick of things is exactly where a hotshot young lawyer named Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) finds himself after Milton invites him to New York to join his law firm. Milton has been watching this young prosecutor-turned-defense attorney successfully litigate 63 court cases to victory in Gainesville, Fla. Milton has a keen eye for talent, and he can't wait to get Lomax into the firm and working for him.
When Lomax and his wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) first move to New York, everything is wonderful. They are given a stunning penthouse apartment, a huge salary, and all the social perks that come with a high power job. Lomax sinks right into it without a second thought. He delves furiously into his work, while Mary Ann is left at home to adapt to their new high-end lifestyle and, consequently, get a true sense of the evil nature of the situation they're in.
And what a situation it is. "Devil's Advocate" is New York chic gone Gothic by way of "Paradise Lost." One of the film's greatest strengths is its outstanding set and art design by Bruno Rubeo. The setting is the familiar terrain of the Big Apple, but it's twisted just enough to stand out and seem somewhat otherworldly. Milton's office, with its striking walls, bare floors, and giant fireplace seems like hell come to life in Manhattan. The movie draws much of its horror from the uncomfortable feeling of being in familiar surroundings that don't seem quite right. Nothing is distinctly out of place, but you know something is wrong nevertheless.
Like Milton's grandiose office, the movie doesn't invest much in subtlety. Even if the title and previews hadn't given away the fact that Milton is the devil, the movie itself doesn't try to hide it. Fire imagery is all around, and hints are dropped left and right, some more obvious than others. Knowing who John Milton is from the onset does have its enjoyable aspects, because it allows the viewer to read between the lines of what he says. When he is talking with Mary Ann and she complains about how she never got along with her father, Milton smiles and assures her that he knows exactly what she means. And it's hard not to sense his delight when Lomax tells him how he stopped going to church on a regular basis, despite the convictions of his religious mother (Judith Ivey).
Unfortunately, this knowledge also has its down side. When the film reaches its grand climax where Milton reveals himself to Lomax, there's no real surprise to the audience. However, this does not mean that the film drones out in a boring conclusion that could be foreseen from the first reel. Instead, the script throws in some new developments, and one grand twist that is patently unfair and might frustrate some viewers. The last ten minutes are effective only in that they cheat.
It was an inspired bit of casting to put Al Pacino in the role of the devil incarnate. Pacino has a very diabolic look about him; he has just the right grin, the kind of cackling, toothy gleam of a grin that just smacks of evil intentions. As the devil, he knows he's always winning, especially when he smugly pronounces that vanity is his favorite sin. Pacino has fun with the role, and time after time he teeters dangerously close to the edge of self-parody.
Keanu Reeves puts in one of his best performances to date. There is none of the stilted uncomfortableness that has characterized so many of his roles. Although his Southern accent tends to vary from scene to scene, the rest of his performance is strong. Charlize Theron also proves herself a strong actress in the film's most difficult role. As Lomax's wife, she is saddled with deteriorating under the weight of having a sense of what's going on around her. Theron makes Mary Ann into a strong, likable woman who ends up suffering for her husband's transgressions.
"Devil's Advocate" was directed by Taylor Hackford ("Dolores Claiborne"), who shows a strong sense for character development and visual flair. He knows how potentially absurd the film could be, and he draws on just enough melodrama and shock effects to keep it in line. They film utilizes some great digital special effects, but it reserves them for just the right moments. When the first outright shock effect happens, it's completely unexpected and completely convincing. In horror movies these days, that's a rare enough occasion to make this one worth watching.
©1997 James Kendrick