VHS Revival takes to the stand with Taylor Hackford’s devilish supernatural thriller
If the devil existed here on Earth, what exactly would he do and how would he set about doing it?
That is the central theme of Taylor Hackford’s 1997 thriller The Devil’s Advocate, which has kind of fallen off the radar in the years since its release for reasons that are understandable. Here, Beelzebub comes in the form of law firm honcho John Milton, played with blistering panache by the legendary Al Pacino, who in the late ’90s was still riding the mainstream wave of his fiery Montana mode, and this is the kind of overstated role he can play in his sleep.
That doesn’t make it any less of a performance from one of the finest actors Hollywood has ever produced, and for the most part Pacino is mesmerising as the dead-eyed grin with the silver tongue, but the role is little more than a caricature, from the hell-fire expressions right down to the platform shoes — a feature symbolic of the Antichrist’s fabled goat-legged incarnation. Pacino gave so many world class performances during the latter part of the 20th century that some of them were inevitably swept under the rugs of time, and during the 1990s his output was at its apotheosis.
When you think of Pacino in the ’90s, you immediately recall stylistic oddities such as Warren Beatty’s star-studded Dick Tracey, masterful crime dramas like Michael Mann’s Heat — a movie which finally pitted Pacino and fellow headliner Robert De Niro against one another, both fictionally and professionally. You even recall monumental flops such as the much maligned Godfather Part III or maudlin crowd-pleasers like Scent of a Woman — a movie that would land Pacino his one and only Oscar in a typically spineless move from the Academy Awards Committee. Glengarry Glen Ross, Carlito’s Way, Donnie Brasco — the list goes on and on. The Devil’s Advocate struggles to hold a candle to the vast majority of those movies, but for those who recall the movie as little more than a distant memory, it’s certainly worth revisiting.
The Devil’s Advocate is crammed full of fine performances, both central and supporting, but it is not without its issues. The movie’s main flaw is its inability to sufficiently define itself as it slowly evolves from one cinematic template to the next. What begins as a John Grisham style adaptation suddenly takes on supernatural undertones, until finally we are plunged into a bald-faced satire, which although effective and largely enjoyable, seems at loggerheads with the rest of the movie, one that stumbles between taut, courtroom drama and supernatural chiller. The movie is further restricted by a superfluous running time, jumping from sensational violence to serious drama with an impromptu hiccup, while occasional stereotyping proves a notable, if largely peripheral obstacle.
John Milton – Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He’s a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does He do, I swear for His own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, He sets the rules in opposition.
Events hinge on a moral decision, as Florida-based up-and-comer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) stands to lose his first ever case defending a serial child molester who is quite clearly guilty. During a brief recess, Lomax heads to the bathroom and wrestles with his conscience, before returning to court and forging the kind of rabbit-in-the-hat victory that grabs the attention of a big time New York firm eager to relocate him and his salt-of-the-earth girlfriend. Kevin’s Evangelist mother is not too crazy about his move for the kind of contrived reasons that prevent the movie from ever becoming more than frivolous good fun, although it is unclear whether that is the movie’s aim.
Soon enough, Lomax becomes the firm’s flavour of the month, and all is roses until he is chosen to lead a triple homicide case involving a high-rolling property developer named Alexander Cullen (Craig T. Nelson). While Lomax whets his whistle in the salacious upper echelons of high society, his wife Mary Ann becomes increasingly isolated as WASP acquaintances buzz insidiously and idle time becomes the devil’s plaything — and I mean that quite literally.
Mary Ann is played by a young Charlize Theron, who delivers a towering performance as the increasingly delusional Southern belle in the big city, handling often muddled material in an accomplished manner that defies her inexperience. Theron is bold and beautiful, frantic and devastatingly bleak, her transition from punchy small town beauty to physical and emotional wreck almost stealing the show. Reeves also performs admirably as the naive and ambitious whippersnapper who inevitably bites off more than he can chew. His soporific facade is a perfect fit for the lost and lurching outsider who is unable to shake his bosses ethereal spell.
But the film ultimately belongs to Pacino’s black-hearted Milton, his insouciant malevolence permeating events in a manner that leaves the movie’s cast squirming under his spell. You see, Milton is more than just the CEO of a multinational conglomerate. He is the Prince of Darkness in his twentieth century incarnation, and what role more befitting than that of a big city lawyer, a person who can bend the rules to his every whim and ensure that criminals walk free on a technicality?
Society may have become more civilised in a general sense since the days when citizens were sentenced to death on an Evangelical whim, but the systematic nature of an evolved species opens many doors for those who are given access. It also locks many more. Who in 20th century civilisation would ever suspect the presence of the devil on Earth other than the kind who are inevitably committed to the loony bin? It’s madness to contemplate the Antichrist at work, but today the devil wears a tailored suit. He smiles and shakes your hand as he steals your pride and obliterates your soul. Just visit the boardrooms of the world’s biggest conglomerates and see for yourself. The effect they have on the lives of the general population are confidential but devastating. Hundreds of years ago, the advent global warming would have been documented as the first stirrings of the apocalypse.
John Milton – The law, my boy, puts us into everything. It’s the ultimate backstage pass. It’s the new priesthood, baby. Did you know there are more students in law school than lawyers walking the Earth?
Pacino’s Milton is an omnipotent presence who influences the lives of everyone he touches, the kind who can commit rape and adultery in an uptown apartment while simultaneously appearing in a court of law. Far from being a one-trick pony, he has his fingers in all sorts of political pies, running the international arms trade and promoting nuclear energy and crossing language barriers to send petty hoods on missions to slice and dice their cheating spouses. If one of his pawns becomes a problem, he sends a gang of newly possessed homeless cronies to beat him into nonexistence, while known antagonists are likely to end up crushed under the wheels of a passing vehicle. In the end, that is the key to successful evil: to be everywhere and nowhere, to be everyone and nobody in particular.
The last hour of the movie ramps up the tension, beginning as a largely effective thriller and descending into the kind of whimsical crescendo that the movie’s marquee talent ultimately thrives on. The reveal is improbably contrived, silly even, but the dialogue is fun and snappy and immensely enjoyable. The movie’s hellfire crescendo, the kind that sees Milton’s office descend into a shape-shifting realm of unholy decadence, acts as a surreal platform for Pacino’s big theatrical push, one that the fate of the world inevitably depends upon.
Murder, incest, a satanic legacy decades in the making: nothing is beyond the realms of plausibility it seems, and though director Hackford gives us the finale we all paid to see, the taut Grisham build seems somewhat out of place, detracting from the movie’s overall impact. This is a movie whose parts are greater than its sum total. It is a good film, not great, but one full of fine performances both expected and unexpected, showcasing the old and ushering in the new, while one of cinema’s most enduring talents seems to have more fun than he has in his entire career.