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The Devil's Advocate

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Devil's Advocate

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino
Director: Taylor Hackford
Rated: R
RunTime: 144 Minutes
Release Date: October 1997
Genres: Horror, Suspense, Thriller

*Also starring: Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Jones, Judith Ivey, Craig T. Nelson, Tamara Tunie, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Debra Monk, Vyto Ruginis

Review by MrBrown
2½ stars out of 4

Heard any good lawyer jokes lately? Taylor Hackford's fantasy/morality tale The Devil's Advocate starts out as a decent one but soon falls prey to Hollywood excess and gimmickry.

Keanu Reeves plays Kevin Lomax, a hotshot Florida attorney who is not above anything to win a case, even (gasp) coming up with convincing defenses for clients he knows are guilty. This, of course, means he his headed for the big-time, and the golden opportunity comes when he is invited to join a lofty New York firm headed by the brash John Milton (Al Pacino).

As the poster's tagline goes, "The newest attorney at the world's most powerful law firm has never lost a case. But he's about to lose his soul." Known to every moviegoer going in, Milton is not only a bad guy, he is _the_ bad guy--the Devil himself. But it takes a while for Kevin to realize this--and for director Hackford to explicitly suggest that he is. As such, The Devil's Advocate comes in at a bloated two-hour, twenty-plus-minute running time. However, the film's setup is much more interesting than the overblown payoff offered by Hackford and screenwriters Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy. Up until the climax, the obligatory visual effects are fairly subtle, convincingly conveying the story's fanciful elements while not undercutting its anchor in reality. But the Hollywood mentality of "more _is_ more" takes hold in the final reel, and Hackford employs an extravagant and extremely extraneous array of effects for the final showdown. Similarly Hollywood are a couple of contrivances that cap the picture. The Devil's Advocate takes a pair of wild twists in its conclusion, the last of which is a definite crowd-pleaser, but it also makes no logical sense. I will not give it away, but it reeks of blatant audience pandering (and, perhaps, test screening tinkering), offering a quick fix of enjoyment while simultaneously going against just about everything that immediately preceded it.

Reeves-bashing has become so commonplace that it can be seen as a critic's easy way out, but, forgive me, I cannot resist here. One of Reeves's worst characteristics is his flat voice, and while punching it up with an accent would seem like a harmless way of giving it a jolt, for Reeves it is ruinous. His Southern drawl is horrendous, not to mention inconsistent, yet mercifully so--he is much easier to take when it disappears. Another common problem with Reeves is his inexpressiveness, which was perfect for the action hero in the original Speed but is a huge hindrance in something halfway-dramatic as this. When some sign of emotion is called for, his face appears to be under great strain, painfully contorting to shape an expression of some affect. Most of all, however, his natural blankness makes Kevin's spiritual change from mostly good to bad barely noticeable; the only difference I could make out between the "before" Kevin and the "after" Kevin is that the "after" Kevin smokes.

It comes as no shock, of course, that the lightweight Reeves can barely hold his own with Pacino, who deserves billing over Reeves for the sheer entertainment value of his performance if not his more illustrious career and box office track record. At first it is slightly disappointing to see Pacino retreat to the broad theatrics of most of his recent work after the beautiful subtleties of Donnie Brasco, but his shameless showboating is not only called for here (after all, the Devil cannot exactly be restrained), but a lot of fun. The sole pleasure of the overdone climax is the sight of Pacino throwing all caution to the wind and cutting completely loose: he not only gets to act angry, sad, happy, and all points in between, he also gets to do a song and dance. Pacino has a blast, and it is hard for you not to, either. His sparkling presence really holds the picture together.

More surprising, though, is Reeves's poor showing against up-and-comer Charlize Theron, who plays Kevin's wife Mary Ann. Theron has the largest dramatic burden to bear--throughout the course of the picture, she has to change from a naive, bleached-blond-and-permed bumpkin to a dark-haired, severely distressed woman driven to the brink of insanity--and she carries it with very little, if any, trouble. She has a critical emotional gravity that Reeves lacks during their more serious scenes, which belies her fairly limited experience in film (and acting, for that matter). It is amazing that over the course of only four films in the past two years--2 days in the Valley, That Thing You Do!, Trial and Error, and this--Theron has displayed a greater depth and range than vet Reeves has in his entire career.

Theron is great, Pacino is, too, and the film has a delicious, if improbable, hook, but in the end The Devil's Advocate is a fable with a fairly simpleminded moral--do the right, honorable thing. It is a lesson we have all been told before one way or another, and in a number of more satisfying cinematic ways.

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