WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Infallible Floridian lawyer Kevin Lomax is tempted to the Big Apple by the prospect of a big money job with a highly impressive, though morally dubious, law firm whose chief is charming rogue John Milton. As Milton takes Lomax under his wing, Kevin’s wife Mary Ann becomes convinced that something isn’t quite right about him or the situation they find themselves in. The discovery of what that something is will send each of them to the brink of what they can endure.
The theme of ‘The Devil Walks among us’ is such a staple of horror films that it almost constitutes a sub-genre (and don’t complain about that being a spoiler – just look at the title); from the clammy tension of The Exorcist and The Omen to more recent fare like The Seventh Sign, the Prince of Darkness has been wheeled out to be the cause of horror, misery and devastation to many an actor and actresses’ life. Taylor Hackford, adapting a novel by Andrew Neiderman, takes a smart approach to the work, presenting what could be a fable about 80s greed and showing that deadly sins – especially vanity – are the province of all levels of society, at all times.
Keanu Reeves is Kevin Lomax, a lawyer who has never lost a case, including, quite miraculously, the one at the film’s beginning where he successfully defends a disgusting male teacher from an allegation of sexual assault. His subsequent celebrations with sexy, round-faced wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) are interrupted by a job offer from New York. Although Lomax initially dismisses the offer, and Kevin’s Bible-reciting mother (Judith Ivey) warns him about the city’s godlessness, the couple head off and soon find themselves housed in an impossibly plush apartment where all the big names in the firm Milton, Chadwick and Waters live, including boss man John Milton (Al Pacino).
Milton, highly charismatic and highly unsettling, takes a shine to Kevin and puts him onto high-profile cases such as a triple-murder, much to the annoyance of associates like Eddie Barzoon (Jeffrey Jones); but as Kevin is drawn ever closer to Milton’s way of thinking, and to intriguingly teasing lawyer Christabella (Connie Nielsen), Mary Ann is neglected. She convinces herself that unnatural forces (personified in the wives of the partners who befriend her) are conspiring to make her infertile, with ultimately tragic consequences.
Thanks largely to the magnetism of Pacino’s performance (he is riveting even when hamming it up, as he constantly does here), The Devil’s Advocate is consistently enjoyable, taking the phrase ‘the Devil’s in the detail’ and applying it to the unscrupulous world of lawyers to attack greed, vanity and vaulting ambition. As a courtroom drama with a twist it works quite nicely – if Keanu never loses a case, somebody must be pulling the strings – but around the hour mark, when the element of horror kicks in, the film begins to feel rather half-baked.
Apart from Barzoon’s not particularly grisly demise, most of the terror is concentrated in Mary Ann; and whilst Theron’s not bad at conveying her descent into fear and madness, the point is made with a change of hairstyle and some horror tricks which recall The Shining and From Dusk Til Dawn, not to this film’s advantage. Reeves, meanwhile, is a good choice as the empty vessel that Milton wants to fill with sin and corruption, and his one-dimensional character is suited to the unthinking pursuit of advancement at all costs; but as usual he fails to completely inhabit the role, his lightweight emoting failing to convince that he loves his wife, lusts after his colleague, or understands the full horror of Pacino’s revelations. Every time Pacino gives a wide-eyed stare, flicks his tongue or cackles like a particularly evil Sid James, Keanu’s blandness sticks out a mile.
The climax comes across as bland, too. The other big revelation – that Kevin is in fact the son of the Devil (posing as a waiter!) – should be a defining, shocking moment, yet within the plot of the film it seems to make very little difference, even during the finale. As someone who frequently complains about stock situations in films it seems churlish to bemoan the lack of a chase, or fight, or big-budget showdown in this one, but the fact is that most of the climax consists of a rather static monologue by Milton in his big room as Nielsen undresses and Dracula-like figures writhe in the background. Though it’s noisy, it’s not particularly exciting – and not to give the whole game away, it’s difficult to entirely forgive the ‘start all over again’ conclusion (having slated it so much in Boxing Helena).
If all this sounds very critical, it’s done with a certain amount of affection. For whilst The Devil’s Advocate fails to generate the uneasy atmosphere of the 1970s films mentioned above, it does combine its chills with a number of satisfyingly titillating and comic touches (eg. the cameos by Don King and others, the man walking behind Milton with ‘Halo Lighting’) which speed things along; and it has at its heart a dominant performance from Pacino, who can do terrifying intensity in his sleep. This may be horror-Lite, but occasionally horror-Lite is exactly what’s required.