THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, 1997
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Cast: Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron, Connie Nielson, Jeffrey Jones, Craig T. Nelson,
Review by Surinder Singh
Hotshot lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) accepts an invitation to join a prestigious New York law firm notorious for it’s track record of getting its guilty clients cleared of all charges. Lomax is drawn in by the money and power that comes with the job; a seduction cleverly orchestrated by the firm’s boss John Milton (Al Pacino). But as Lomax delves deeper into the firm’s legal dealings he discovers there’s more to Mr. Milton’s success than meets the eye…
It’s fair to say that Pacino did his share of mentoring during the nineties. As well as winning his Oscar and churning out some great central performances, he also played a number of supporting roles aside the new generation of leading men. In Donnie Brasco (1997) he supported Johnny Depp and with Any Given Sunday (1999) he did the same for Jamie Foxx. It’s always important for a screen-acting veteran to take stock in the new generation because it gives them the chance to see how good they really are! Perhaps one of the greatest tests for any upcoming actor is: “can I hold my own against Al Pacino on screen?”
As Kevin Lomax, Keanu Reeves was offered the challenge! Reeves arrives on screen looking suitably sharp and suave, he oozes confidence as soon as he enters the courtroom. We are shown someone so ambitious that he’ll happily tear up a poor young girl on the witness stand to win his case. It’s not long until he attracts interest from like-minded people in his field. As the film’s title suggests we’re witnessing someone on a moral journey in a job that continuously puts morality up for question. Reeves plays Lomax brilliantly as a man who is quite comfortable with drawing a line of professionalism between himself and the case. At this point in his journey it’s not important whether his client is guilty or not, only that he wins!
The film really gets going once Lomax is in New York and poised to begin his case with the new law firm. Enter Al Pacino: in a wonderful scene on top of the huge sky-rise looking down at the world below, Milton acquaints himself with his new employee Lomax. Director Taylor Hackford does a great job of balancing a realistic drama set against a modern day New York with the supernatural and mythic elements at play. The scene is totally plausible but at the same time positions Pacino’s Milton as the Master of the Universe. He’s more than just a successful man; his power clearly reaches further than Lomax is presently aware of.
Many actors in the past have played the Prince of Darkness: Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Robert De Niro in Angel Heart (1987) and of course Tim Curry in Legend (1985). By default, any actor who takes on such a notorious character will be compared to the previous incarnations. Pacino is charismatic and carries his character with a sense of cool that draws you in from the moment you meet him. Pacino may be a small guy but in The Devil’s Advocate he owns every space he walks into and everyone in it! Pacino’s Milton is by far the most contemporary and convincing incarnation of Satan for many years.
Like he did in Donnie Brasco, Pacino plays a mentor and takes Keanu Reeves’ Lomax under his wing. Milton explains his philosophy leaving his new apprentice in awe: “Look at me! Underestimated from day one. You’d never think I was a master of the universe, now would ya?” Rather than exert superhuman physical powers, Milton is the puppet master who prefers discretion: “I’m the hand up Mona Lisa’s skirt. I’m a surprise, Kevin. They don’t see me coming!” Lomax sees this simply as advice to help him progress as a lawyer. All the while his new mentor who is ten steps ahead is manipulating him!
The movie is full of devilishly splendid set pieces. Lomax is advised to seek out a man named Moyez (Delroy Lindo) a witchdoctor who’s on trial for the ritualistic butchering of animals. Moyez offers Lomax a helping hand (via a strange ritual with a decapitated tongue) and sure enough the prosecution cannot get a word out in the following trial. The scene gives supernatural depth to the power of Milton and his associates, showing the unsettled Lomax the extent to which his “unfaltering success” is being secured. Perhaps the greatest set piece is the killing of Eddie Barzoon (Jeffery Jones). As he jogs through Central Park we hear Pacino’s piercing voice off-screen, the feeling of an impending doom takes over until we see the poor Barzoon fall to his bloody fate.
Like most films about the Spirit of Evil (walking amongst us in modern times) The Devil’s Advocate is essentially a story about someone saving their soul from Evil. The idea that through all Evil’s temptations we eventually choose the path to light and salvation. On reflection this movie is unlike the others in the way it delivers the age-old story to you in a fresh, contemporary and engaging manner. The performances are strong and Pacino’s performance completely convinces you he’s the modern incarnation of the Prince of Darkness. Plus, on purely popcorn terms this movie is a solid thriller that doesn’t rest too heavily on religious fact and while the symbols of Christianity are ripe throughout they do not alienate the audience.
The Devil’s Advocate is a great movie to watch over and over. Not exactly ‘light-entertainment’ but a strong contemporary thriller that will satisfy. It also contains arguably the best portrayal of Satan on film…yet another testament to the awesome acting talent of Al Pacino!