Janus Film Review Presents: The Devil's Advocate (1997)

as reviewed by Dan

Format Reviewed: Digital/Warner Bros. (2014).

The blending of legal epic and biblical melodrama is a promising concept, but it feels strangely undercooked in Director Taylor Hackford’s adaptation of The Devil’s Advocate (1997), based on the novel by Andrew Neiderman. The time spent in the courtroom is invariably given over to wordless reveals or parlour tricks, designed to emphasise the burgeoning supernatural platform upon which Kevin Lomax - Keanu Reeves’ cocksure ‘lawyer’ - plies his trade. At the time of this film’s release, Reeves was only two years shy of The Matrix (1999), and his reinvention as Neo; the messianic figure that would become his most convincing, signature role. Alas in The Devil’s Advocate, Reeves’ flirtation with ambiguity is somewhat less convincing.

Lomax comes across as (alternatively) an oblivious prat, or a befuddled fool, with occasional whiffs of self-awareness. This heady emotional mixture is largely mandated by the plot, and though ‘range’ is definitely too strong a word, the ever-likeable Keanu exerts himself with gusto, and he is intermittently convincing. Five years previously, Gary Oldman was using Reeves to pick his teeth, whist awaiting the arrival of the proper thespians. In The Devil’s Advocate, he is disjointed as opposed to cringeworthy, and this is a blessed mark of progress. The initial reveal of Lomax - the undefeated wunderkind - and his moral conundrum is actually very intriguing. The resultant thrashing he gives in cross-examination (fully aware that his client is as guilty as sin) represents Keanu Reeves at the pinnacle of his dramatic powers, and serves to texture the Lomax character more effectively than at any other point during the film’s bloated running time.

It’s almost enough to make you wonder what might have been, had the course been stayed with more legitimate legal fare, but this was never the film’s intention. The Devil’s Advocate can’t wait to start beating you about the head with its occult conceit. This is for the express purpose of setting the stage for Al Pacino - the man they ‘never see coming’ - and his bastard child of Marlowe’s Mephistopheles and Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane: the subtly-named John Milton. From the moment he arrives on screen, the film is unapologetically stolen by a rampant Pacino.

Granted the canvas of New York City - compared to the biblical ‘Babylon’, in another of the film’s attempts to disembowel you with its subtlety - Pacino weaves a vivid tapestry. He is oceans of fun as he dances around the city, flaunting his charismatic power over all mankind. One minute he’s a high-powered sexual dynamo, the next he’s a streetwise polyglot. The Milton character is intended to be the glue that binds, but he is tonally inconsistent, and comes across as a bizarre merging of the real Milton’s Lucifer, and David Bowie during his tight trousers phase. He has some admittedly glorious dialogue and one-liners, but you’d have to be blind to miss the inevitability of his origins.

The revelation of his familial link to Lomax is equally dunderheaded, and not present in the original novel. It seems the filmmakers were so dazzled by Pacino’s rambunctious demeanour that they neglected to observe the finer details. Rather than telling the story of Kevin Lomax, the film soon seeks to bounce from one Milton monologue to the next. Thanks to the brilliance of Pacino this is not end of the world - far from it - but the film would have you believe that the very same world is at stake, and for all Milton’s yelling and dramatic loosening of clothing, this doesn’t ultimately convince.

The film wants you to accept the contention of a Faustian bargain, willingly offered by Milton and accepted by Lomax. Kevin has supposedly ‘chosen’ his fate, and continues to ‘choose’ at various points, but why? What exactly does he gain? Greater fame in a bigger city; professional prestige and… not much else. He’s offered an exquisite-looking lady - the delectable Connie Nielsen - but he already has a beautiful wife. Far from reigning in Heaven or Hell, he is on Earth, doing his job. Not enough is done to articulate the process of temptation, and any further development is curtailed by questions of actorly prioritisation, and Keanu Reeves’ inevitable inadequacies. He certainly looks the part, but even at his best he seems slightly cowed and detached from proceedings, and in more character-based dramas, this is a problem.

The Devil’s Advocate provided a breakthrough role for Charlize Theron (as Kevin’s wife, Mary Ann Lomax) and she does the very best with what she’s given. There is some chemistry between her and Reeves, but this is blown out of the water in just one scene between her and Pacino. Theron does a fine job of conveying the physical and mental torture she experiences at Milton’s hands, but this only serves to encapsulate the film’s tonal inconsistency. The trauma of Mary Ann gives us Milton at his most demonic, and though the violence is mostly implied, the film needed more instances of this outright evil. Instead, as we reach the apex of demonic cruelty, the film prevaricates. We are shown Milton, sporting a cheesy leer as he places his finger in Holy Water, causing it to apparently boil. So we have the continued, systematic rape and torture of an innocent woman, alongside a glorified children’s party trick. That is a frankly bizarre and uncomfortable juxtaposition.

The film concludes with an infamous final monologue from Milton, and a defining choice. This seemingly rewarding finale is instantly undermined by a clunky and unoriginal reset. It is revealed that despite the choice he willingly makes, Lomax isn’t redeemed, just reprieved. The Devil can (and will) keep plugging away until he presumably ‘wins’, whatever the hell (pun intended) that means. This clumsy ending thus eliminates any true concept of ‘choice’, and the film’s supposed moral and thematic core is invalidated. This is a peculiar and stupid choice, that smacks of shock value, and removes any lingering possibility of the film as a properly serious entity.

The Devil’s Advocate is pleasing to the eye, quite often amusing and occasionally caresses the boundaries of the profound, but it is unworthy of the materials it seeks to be informed by, and succeeds mostly on the basis of one flamboyant performance. It seems like such an obvious thing to say, but some films are assuredly good and others are definitely bad. You can watch a ‘good’ film and be convinced of its excellence, or take in a ‘bad’ movie and be repulsed by its crapulence. Then there are motion pictures such as this one. The Devil’s Advocate is a veritable halfway house: by no means a terrible film, nor a masterpiece that will prompt you to genuflect in its presence. It merely dwells in its own company, content that it’s serving some sort of purpose, and asks very few challenging questions of itself or the audience.

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