Taylor Hackford’s “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997) fittingly begins in a lively, trashy manner.
In a Florida courtroom, Heather Matarazzo is on the stand and Keanu Reeves’ attorney is grilling her over a sexual assault charge aimed at his client. The dialog is lurid and elevated, never coming across like an actual court transcription but something much sleazier and contrived.
Reeves’ character, Kevin Lomax, later has a moment of moral crossroads, makes a fateful decision and is suddenly whisked away to New York; Lomax is courted for a job at a law firm where every living and financial consideration is taken care of, and nothing is off limits.
His boss and mentor is played by Al Pacino and, long before this “The Firm” meets “Rosemary’s Baby” hybrid goes full tilt into its genre, the Faustian elements are in place.
Reeves sometimes pushes too hard and his Southern accent comes and goes throughout the long running time, but he’s confident and forceful here. Of his early work, it’s leagues better than his work-in-progress turns in “Speed” or “The Matrix” and reflects the ambition in his choosing the little seen “The Last Time I Committed Suicide,” “River’s Edge” and “My Own Private Idaho.”
Which is to say, while “The Devil’s Advocate” isn’t in the league with those edgy little indies, Reeves is as good here as he needed to be.
Theron, like Reeves, sports an accent that disappears for whole scenes, but she is spectacular in this, though the scenes of her character having a breakdown are the film’s ugliest.
The supporting cast also includes Craig T. Nelson, Jeffrey Jones and Delroy Lindo. Rick Baker and Rob Bottin were involved with the creature effects during the climax.
This is a big-league B-movie.
When Pacino places his finger into holy water and it starts to boil, the film truly announces itself, gets really elaborate and truly ludicrous. Pacino seems to playing the third act entirely for laughs (akin to being in a Mel Brooks movie), whereas Reeves never falters in his intensity, a weird mix to watch.
In addition to the avalanche of sleaze, the final scenes have too much morphing, though give it to Hackford for at least trying to literally entertain the hell out of us.
I’m unsure if it was a bad idea to celebrate Pacino in a performance like this, but, in the same way I’m always stumping for Robert De Niro’s bad decisions of late, Pacino deserves to have a little fun after spending the first three decades as one of our greatest film actors.
Pacino’s grandstanding climactic monologue is proof that the editor loves him, as Hackford has never made a movie that wasn’t at least 20-minutes too long.
Truth be told, De Niro, Pacino’s friend and frequent collaborator, made a much better, subtler and scarier devil in Alan Parker’s “Angel Heart” (1987).
For Reeves, this is oddly a warmup for “Constantine” (2005), which was deemed a flop in its day but not only has amassed a cult following but holds up better than this movie; the two films make a curious, if ideal, double feature.
This was among the many big budget ’90s films about spirituality/morality, with “Meet Joe Black” arriving the following year. If this movie proves anything, it’s that a moral tale works best when its spiritual elements aren’t so literal.
It’s hard to believe now, but it was supposed to be a secret that Pacino was playing the devil. Warner Brothers spilled the big third act reveal in the trailers.
Literate audiences spotted the twist once Pacino’s character reveals his name, though the presence of an outsized fireplace in his law firm office is a much bigger giveaway.
There isn’t an ounce of subtlety in this.
— Retro Clips (@RetroClips80s) October 17, 2022
It looks fantastic, with the performances and characters matching the opulent sets. Still, Sydney Pollack’s similar, classier “The Firm” (1993) did all of this better without sketchy CGI, hambone histrionics and a last-minute twist right out of “The Empire Strikes Back” (not to mention the goofy morphing effect the film unwisely concludes on).
At least that Rolling Stones song over the end credits is spot on.
“The Devil’s Advocate” is outrageous, crass and very enjoyable, though it’s time to reassess Hackford’s best work: it’s “White Nights”(1985) and “Dolores Claiborne” (1995) and not “Ray” (2004) or this movie.
While it’s based on the 1990 novel by Andrew Neiderman, the film really needed to be a two-headed monster in its inception: if Peter Straub and Stephen King could write “The Talisman” together, then the screenplay for this ought to have been by King and John Grisham.
That would have resulted in a better, presumably even wilder movie, with a pairing every bit as weird as Pacino and Reeves.