Our review of The Devil's Advocate (Blu-ray), published September 21st, 2012, is also available.
Are we having a hell of a lotta fun yet?
Everyone loves a good morality play, and I like them even more when they are not black and white, when they challenge me to think about what good and evil really are. This film is quite an interesting twist on the classical treatment of selling one's soul for personal advancement. It is, to me, the most realistic portrayal I've seen of how a Biblical sort of evil would actually manifest itself in this day and age.
The story follows a young Florida lawyer, Kevin Lomax played by Keanu Reeves (The Matrix, Little Buddha, Chain Reaction) who has a perfect record, first as a prosecutor and then as a defense lawyer. From the first view of Kevin, we know he has a relatively high opinion of himself and enjoys the 'take no prisoners' reputation he has as the winningest attorney in town. He is a local stud, with a hot wife, a good job, and 'gator skin boots. I.e. he's becoming a big fish in his little pond. As it turns out, this self confidence and pride have an interesting source and play a key role in the story.
We open in the courtroom, during the trial of a local teacher, accused by a student of sexual misconduct. As the student tells her story of the molestation, Kevin looks down to find his client fondling himself, lost in unconscious pleasure at the recounting of the action. Now sure that his client is guilty, Kevin asks for and receives a short court recess and scurries to the restroom to get his thoughts together. Goaded on by a local reporter, who teases Kevin that his long string of victories is up, our young hero goes back to the courtroom and shreds the girl to pieces on the stand, winning the trial in the process. This kicks off a series of events that will change the lives of himself and his wife, Mary Ann Lomax, played by Charlize Theron (2 Days in the Valley, That Thing You Do.)
Later that night, at the celebration party where the guilt is assuaged by dancing and liquor, a representative of a high-powered Manhattan law firm approaches Kevin. They make him a huge offer to come to New York to assist in the jury selection for an important trial. Kevin accepts this offer, goes to New York, and wins big in his first case. A subsequent offer is then made to him by the senior partner of the firm, John Milton played by Al Pacino (The Godfather, Scarface, Heat, Donnie Brasco , et al), to become a member of the team.
As Kevin dives deeply into his new life, continuing to win cases, Mary Ann is sinking into depression and confusion. She's alone and no longer employed, thrown in with the dangerous 'power-wives' of the partners. She's out of her league and slipping downhill fast. Kevin, caught up in the rush of victory, tries sporadically to come down to help her, but in the end loses out to his ego. Mary Ann begins to have seemingly serious mental problems, hallucinating badly of demons and horrors around her.
However, all is not as it seems. John Milton is more than just the senior partner of the firm. He makes your average high powered lawyer scum look like a boy scout. He is in fact, El Diablo, the Big Dark Cheese, the Devil himself. And, as it turns out, he is in fact Kevin's father, unknown to Kevin himself. He's been watching Kevin the entire time, pulling strings in the background, grooming him to take over not just the company, but the universe. Kevin discovers that he is the Anti-Christ, which has got to be relatively disconcerting, one would assume, though its probably pretty impressive on the résumé.
I don't want to give away too much of the story, because it is actually quite well done and I've already probably divulged enough to reduce your viewing pleasure. But rest assured that the flow of the story is much less obvious than my short synopsis here. This is one film where I couldn't help but be impressed with the writing and story conception. Though it is a variation on a classic theme, it seems very fresh and modern, and very applicable to our lives today.
In particular, Al Pacino's rendition of Satan is, in my opinion, awesome. I've read some comments that his portrayal is somewhat over the top, but come on, he's Satan! Somehow I kinda think Satan might be a little over the top in real life. I've never met him in person of course, but the guy who does my lawn does the lawn of Satan's agent, so I know stuff. Milton's Satan is lusty and lethal, but never flashy. He's the new and improved radar evading Stealth Satan. He doesn't force anyone to sin, he just gives them the opportunity, and they are more than happy to step up to the table and help themselves.
In the climactic scene, were Kevin confronts his father (knowing now of their relationship), Milton gives an incredible speech, in which he lays out his philosophy. This little talk is the best part of the film, in my opinion, in which he portrays himself as the ultimate humanist, down in the gutter with us during the whole thing. He berates God as a sadist who gives us the desire, but forbids us to indulge it, an 'absentee landlord' as he puts it, using us as the ultimate cosmic gag reel.
Even Keanu does a reasonable acting job here, making up for some past boners. His portrayal of Kevin Lomax is not bad. With his recent appearance in The Matrix, we may have to find another whipping boy soon. And Charlize Theron…she makes me feel kinda funny. And she also handles her role quite well as the good hearted, home town, trailer park honey thrown into waters way too deep. Other notable roles are filled by Craig T. Nelson and Jeffrey Jones.
The anamorphic video quality is a little mixed. In some scenes its very crisp, but in others its a bit noisy, at least on my system. It was never enough to distract me from the intriguing story, but it was odd that it was so variable. When it looked good, it looked quite good. In particular, the scenes filmed in Donald Trump's home (supposedly the home of a wealthy company client) offers up some serious color and texture. Talk about over the top though, Liberace would be embarrassed to live there. Subtly is evidently not on Donald's list of things to buy.
The 5.1 audio track is pretty good. This is not an action flick, but there are some good ambient effects and the music is nicely enveloping. The dialogue is always intelligible.
The notable extras are a good number of deleted scenes and an audio commentary by the director. I think that this commentary track is one of the better I've listened to. He keeps to the subject matter and provides useful insights into the characters and the movie making process.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This film would certainly offend the sensibilities of the more hard core religious crowd. Its failure to paint the world as good on one side and bad on the other would be hard for some to swallow. And the Devil does like to do the nasty once in a while, though there is not much in the way of explicit body parts in evidence. Its mostly just implied, other than two short scenes. And there is a little bit of scary stuff, but if squeamish me can handle it, I'm sure you can.
As mentioned, the video is not of reference quality necessarily, so if you are blowing it up real good, it might look a little noisy or soft to you in places.
And of course some of you have taken solemn oaths not to view any more Keanu films, but I think that in this case its probably okay as long as you try to stay relaxed. Just look away periodically if you start feeling ill.
Overall, I think this is a great film. In my initial viewing, I was pulled into it quite deeply. And a subsequent viewing for this review was equally impressive. For a big budget picture, its very intelligent, raises some interesting moral issues, and provides a very realistic and modern setting for the telling of one of the all time classic stories. They even manage to finesse the legally required happy ending without excessively lessening the impact of the morality play, by way of an interesting twist at the end.
This one is acquitted, and I assure you that the decision had nothing to do with any fear of lakes of fire or eternal pain on my part. I'm already doomed to smoke a big stinky one for all eternity, for my sins of conspicuous Home Theater consumption. I sold my soul for a line doubler, but it was a good one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Director Taylor Hackford
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