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*Also starring: Donald Sutherland, Embeth Davidtz, James Gandolfini, Robert Joy, Aida Turturro, Elias Koteas, Allelon Ruggiero

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

Sometimes it is in the casting phase of pre-production that a film's success is assured, and so it is with FALLEN, a detective story and supernatural thriller starring Denzel Washington as Det. John Hobbes.

With a smartly written script by Academy Award nominee Nicholas Kazan (REVERSAL OF FORTUNE) and deft direction by Gregory Hoblit, FALLEN tells a detective story with a different solution but classic police tracking. Hoblit, the director of PRIMAL FEAR, that underappreciated gem from last year, takes a concept that has schlock potential written all over it and fashions it into an intensely compelling motion picture.

"I want to tell you about the time I almost died," Det. Hobbes tells us in the story's opening line. "I never thought it would happen to me, not at this age." Washington's warm intonation of the prescient and insightful voice-overs sets the tone for all of the key events in the drama.

As the story starts, a convict on death row faces execution. Elias Koteas, last seen in CRASH and GATTACA, plays the creepy serial killer Edgar Reese. Det. Hobbes, who put Reese away, comes to his execution. Both are utterly confident, with a gum chewing Det. Hobbes relaxed and a prancing Reese hyperactive. As Reese begins to taunt Hobbes, Reese speaks in a variety of language, especially ancient Aramaic, and shoots out his hand to touch Hobbes. Once in the gas chamber, Reese bursts out singing, "Time is on my side; yes it is." This recurring song becomes one of filmdom's most effectively chilling use of a single song.

"Something is always happening," Det. Hobbes tells us. "But when it happens, people don't always see it or accept it." Soon after Reese's execution, a series of mysterious murders starts, and the story surrounds the investigation of these murders.

Det. Hobbes works in a realistically cluttered police station office. The film's excellent supporting cast includes John Goodman as his partner Jonesy, James Gandolfini as fellow office Lou and Donald Sutherland as his boss Lt. Stanton. Although the other actors get fresh roles, Sutherland plays his usual slightly sinister part. Lt. Stanton, who knows something he's not telling, tries to get Det. Hobbes to stop his involvement in the investigation of the new murders.

Director Hoblit's precise staging has it just right with none better than the touching scenes. With touch playing a central element in the story, he sets up a fast paced sequence on a crowded city street that gets your adrenaline pumping. And cinematographer Tom Sigel switches from person to person using techniques first popularized in SLACKER.

As the story advances, we know more than Det. Hobbes, but the fascination comes from watching Hobbes unravel the mystery. As Gretta Milano, Embeth Davidtz from SCHINDLER'S LIST plays a woman whose father was a policeman who committed suicide years earlier. Milano could help Det. Hobbes, but rightly fears getting involved.

The beauty of the script can perhaps best be seen in the minutia. The writer takes care in the fashioning of even the minor characters. Det. Hobbes, for example, lives with his brother and his brother's son. One morning at breakfast, his brother looks over and speaks a simple, "I love you." Imagine that, adult brothers who frankly admit their love without it being some fake plot contrivance.

Along the way, the clues mount as they do in any good mystery. Among others, they include an ACLU video of Reese just before the execution that contains a host of information to be uncovered and items seemingly as simple as fingerprints. When Det. Hobbes uncovers the solution to the crimes, he ridicules it at first as preposterous. As Lt. Stanton explains it, "People want the world to make sense."

In a nice surprise, the completely predictable ending isn't. With a few carefully chosen and completely satisfying twists, the movie's ending is one of its best parts.

FALLEN is rated R for some violence and profanity and would be fine for teenagers. A small part is in Aramaic without benefit of English subtitles.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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