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At the end of Taylor Hackford's Devil's Advocate, Al Pacino expounds on why he has chosen the field of law as the vehicle for his machinations. Although his explanation may be offensive to many Harvardians with visions of high-priced retainers dancing in their heads, it is one of the funniest scenes in a film surprisingly full of funny moments.
Despite its title and advertising campaign, Devil's Advocate doesn't offer much in the fright department. Its special-effect heavy climax is a joke about two lawyers having sex in order to produce the Antichrist. Yet D.A. (pun intended?), while lacking the intricacy and genuine thrills of The Firm or the scares of Rosemary's Baby, is a campy, entertaining mix of both films, boosted by Al Pacino's manic performance as its centerpiece.
Keanu Reeves co-stars with Pacino as Kevin Lomax, a cocky, hot-shot young lawyer--is there any other kind in Hollywood movies?--from Gainesville, Florida who has never lost a trial. After winning his umpteenth case, in which he defends a teacher accused of child molestation (and during which one of the teacher's victims, played to mock Southern perfection by Heather Matarazzo from Welcome to the Dollhouse, breaks into tears) he is approached by a representative from a New York law firm.
Before you can say "Bill and Ted's Excellent Faustian Adventure," Reeves and his bombshell wife (Charlize Theron) are off to that "modern Babylon," the Big Apple. Pacino, as John Milton (wink wink, nudge nudge), the head of the firm, offers Kevin the case of his life--along with the requisite women, money, and freedom that comes from "never having to say that you're sorry." Kevin begins to neglect his wife, who soon senses that something is terribly wrong with this apparently picture-perfect firm. Satanic hijinks ensue, climaxing in a Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker-style confrontation between Reeves and Pacino.
Hackford offers some dazzling visuals, including an artificial lake on top of a skyscraper and a chilling shot of Keanu Reeves walking out of a hospital to find all of Manhattan empty. Milton's penthouse exudes an atmosphere of slick, menacing, kinky-campy decadence--it's Hugh Hefner meets the Marquis de Sade. Hackford is smart enough not to let the cinematography get in the way of Pacino: as Milton, the actor is his own special effect. And when the actual special effects--including a wall sculpture that comes to swarming, slithery life--do appear, they pale in comparison to Pacino's "hoo-ha" rambunctiousness.
Devil's Advocate, despite its acerbic humor and visual style, is nothing like "Scream," which set the new standard for all horror or semi-horror flicks. Though the very premise of this film involves a satirical jab at the legal profession, the movie doesn't ultimately match the sly wit of Scream or the films from which it borrows. The ending, in trying to be both clever and moralistic, comes off as manipulative and uninspired--in other words, too conventionally Hollywood. It's a huge let-down after a fun build-up.
The film also suffers from being way too long, clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes (including a pointless 15-minute side plot that wastes the great Delroy Lindo in a clumsily caricatured role). Whenever the film begins to drag--which is pretty much whenever Pacino is off screen for more than ten minutes--Hackford throws in some nudity. Pacino excepted, nearly all the main characters get to run around at least once in their birthday suits.
Reeves gives a solid performance, doing his best with a role that requires him to alternate between smugness and smugness-with-a-hint-of-outrage. It is only when he attempts to be too serious--or when he sporadically adopts a Southern accent (a la Elvis)--that he falls flat. Charlize Theron (best known for her role as an icy femme fatale in Two Days in the Valley) also does a good job with a somewhat underwritten character.
However, Devil's Advocate is unquestionably Pacino's show. His turn here isn't, of course, on the level of his work in The Godfather series, but it is arguably one of his most dynamic performances since Scent of Woman. More Dionysus than Antichrist--he calls himself "the last real humanist"--he gives the funniest and most genuinely charismatic portrayal of the devil since Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick.
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