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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

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Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

In John Grisham's "The Firm," lawyer Mitch McDeere may have thought he had joined the law firm from hell, but he hadn't. In contrast, Kevin Lomax in DEVIL'S ADVOCATE does and finds the perks in working for God's opposition to be seductively satisfying even if there are significant drawbacks. To be sure, he does not know that his boss John Milton is the Devil incarnate, and the beauty of the film is that it keeps this obvious secret from Kevin until the end.

Most films dealing with the supernatural border on being unwatchably ridiculous. And fictional films about God and temptation are even worse. Only THE RAPTURE and COMMANDMENTS come to mind as films worth seeing that cover the latter. DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, thanks to Tony Gilroy and Jonathan Lemkin's smart and witty script, based on Andrew Neiderman's novel, is worth adding to this short list. The picture has you alternating between thinking and laughing.

The story starts in a small courtroom in rural Florida. Kevin has a perfect record as a lawyer due to his omniscience in jury selection. A nerdy teenage girl, played with childlike innocence by Heather Matarazzo from WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, is on the witness stand. With a quivering lip, she testifies that her teacher sexually abused her. As Kevin is ready to rip her to her shreds in cross-examination, he sees his client's eyes lusting after her and fondling the desk exactly as the girl claims he fondled her. Realizing his client is guilty as sin, Kevin goes into a panic attack. In a cold sweat, Kevin resolves his conscience conflict in favor of winning.

As Kevin, Keanu Reeves turns in his best performance since SPEED. With his suave demeanor and his yuppie drive for money, power and success, Kevin is ripe pickings for John Milton. As a consummate business manipulator, Al Pacino plays John, the head of a big Manhattan law firm that makes Kevin an incredibly lucrative offer to come to work for them. Defending the slimeballs of the world and shredding documents before investigators find them, John's law firm is a bastion of evil. Pacino is in his prime during the show. Punching out lines both powerful and humorous. ("What about love?" Kevin asks him at one point. "Biochemically overrated," John explains. "It's no different than a big box of chocolates.")

John's highly religious mother, played by a haggard looking Judith Ivey, warns him that New York is a modern day Babylon. With Andrzej Bartkowiak's stunning time lapsed cinematography of New York's skyscrapers, the metaphor seems apt. Bruno Rubeo's sets combining Rococo with the ultra-modern further enhance the image. Especially memorable is the large stone diorama that graces the wall of the large room where John works, lives and sleeps.

From the beginning John taunts Kevin even while serving as his mentor. John wants to know why he no longer goes to church with his mother. "It didn't work out -- The book? The church?" John inquires. "I'm on parole," Kevin replies, smiling obsequiously. "Early release for time served."

Charlize Theron from TRIAL AND ERROR, plays Kevin's incredibly beautiful wife Mary Ann. When they go to live in a huge company apartment overlooking Central Park, she gives up her job repossessing cars. "Are you really this good?" she asks him when she sees their new palatial digs.

Theron's superlative acting in this supporting role fills out the storyline. As Mary Ann becomes aware of what is happening, she begins a slow descent into madness. ("I know we've got all this money, and it's supposed to be okay, but it's not," she says while suffering from rapidly increasing depression.) Several of her scenes are so strong that they are not likely to be forgotten. One happens on a shopping spree with other wives, whom she comes to detest. The other involves conjugal relations. The movie uses transformation scenes sparingly but effectively. And one of the times her busy husband pencils her in for sex, a transformation occurs with spectacularly jarring visual results.

Pacino's street-smart and superrich Devil has such credibility because of his likability. With his charisma, his money, his power and the beautiful and sexy people surrounding him, he has all the temptations in the world to offer a young protege. If you're not careful, you'll find yourself wanting to hang with John. But if you go astray, it's not his fault. "I only set the stage," he argues. "You pull your own strings." John is a big fan of free will.

In a long and somewhat surprising ending sequence that blends the sublime with the outlandish, John reveals himself to Kevin and explains why it was so easy to entrap him. "Vanity, definitely my favorite sin," John tells Kevin as one reason why Kevin was so vulnerable. And boy, are there are others.

If the Devil does walk the earth, he's probably a lot like John Milton.

DEVIL'S ADVOCATE runs 2:18, and although it does not need to be that long, the film amazingly does not suffer because of it. The movie is rated R for sex, full frontal nudity, violence, profanity, and mature themes -- remember, this IS a movie about the Devil. The film would be fine for mature teenagers. I recommend the film highly and give it *** 1/2.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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