Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

FLASHBACKS: Review of The Devil's Advocate, 11/4/1997

Big, gaudy, overdramatic, too long, undisciplined, cheesy—these can be disastrous for a film, yet The Devil’s Advocate is all that with a smile. The result is an enjoyable and not especially deep mess of a movie, about Satan running a law firm.

Kevin Lomax (a pretty solid Keanu Reeves) is Gainesville’s winningest lawyer, with almost a sixth sense for choosing juries that will free the guilty. This earns him a chance to join a New York law firm, founded by a man ominously named John Milton (Al Pacino, clearly enjoying himself). Lomax and his wife Mary Anne (Charlize Theron of Trial & Error) dive into well-funded big-city life; Kevin defends a voodoo worshiper and a rich murder suspect, while a bored and frustrated Mary Anne is advised starkly by an unsympathetic neighbor, “You can work, you can play, or you can breed.”

There are clever little signs of what’s afoot at Milton’s: an emotionally barren lawyer (the neighbor’s husband) is named Heath, a Biblical reference to a wasteland, and the firm is based at Penta Plaza… as in “pentagram,” heh heh.*

Lomax doesn’t notice this at first, even though his deeply Protestant mother speaks of New York City as a modern Gomorrah; he jokes that he’s “on parole (from religion) for time served.” Events, however, work on the assumption that Lomax is more religious than he thinks, especially once the impossible starts happening, like Milton showing up in several places at once. Once he realizes that his boss is indeed the Big Cheese of fallen angels, Lomax practically enters Modern Crusade mode, and things really get weird; there’s a curiously effective shot of him in a completely deserted New York.

The story is not really reined in, and rambles at two hours and 20 minutes. The film can’t decide what it wants to be (is it drama? horror? satire?) But it has enough entertaining nuggets to keep the audience occupied and, occasionally, moved: Mary Anne deteriorates through the movie, made ill by Milton.

The film is almost too gorgeous, with burnished color schemes suggesting everything is lit by, ahem, intense firelight. There are celebrity cameos, in-jokes (watch for a man with a box of “Halo Lighting” behind Reeves in one street scene), bouts of wild sex between beautiful people, stylized special effects where, say, a character’s skin moves as if hands are underneath it — in other words, a lot of eye candy. The score by James Newton Howard (who wrote similarly religious music for Flatliners) is huge and angelic, too.

The ending is almost too cinematic for its own good, since it uses a plot twist related to why events have had the mounting inevitability of a nightmare (no, it’s not a nightmare). Let’s just say that you have to believe there’s a lot more going on behind Keanu Reeves’ eyes than most people think to accept the finale…

Basically, The Devil’s Advocate is a Good vs. Evil story, and this can make for hugely satisfying films like The Night of the Hunter, Star Wars and The Fifth Element. This is not great, but it’s fun and I still recommend it.

* 2009 note: I didn't know there actually is a Penta Plaza Pavilion (at least this guy says so), at 33rd St. and 7th Ave. in Manhattan. Maybe it wasn't a clever reference. Or maybe it was.
Tags: film reviews, flashbacks

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