Today I watched Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Kevin Lomax is an up and coming defense attorney who is building a winning streak in Gainesville, Florida. He is working the case of a teacher charged with sexually molesting one of his students who he catches touching himself during the victim’s testimony. This triggers a crisis of conscience which resolves itself when a reporter taunts him in the bathroom and Lomax decides, winning is everything. After this landmark victory he is contacted by a law firm in New York who want his help assembling a jury and from there they want to bring him on full time. The head of this firm is the mysterious Mr. Milton who takes an immediate liking to Lomax and is pretty obviously Satan, even in a room full of lawyers his diabolical aura stands out. But Lomax doesn’t know that, despite his first proper case having rather demonic overtones, and why should he worry? Milton is making his life perfect. Well, perfect except for his deteriorating relationship with his wife who seems much more aware of the devilish doings that surround Milton.
Mashing up Devil based horror and legal drama is an inspired idea and when the film is involved in the lawyering and court room proceedings it works best. During these phases it blends very well built characters with supernatural suspense to support a wonderfully ironic premise. The two principle actors are absolutely great at making this work, Keanu Reeves as lomax in particular delivers what has to be one of his best performances despite a constantly slipping Floridian accent. There is a lot of depth to Lomax and Reeves, an actor not known for effective dramatic subtlety really works as this cold and calculating character, consumed by his own vanity. And then there is Al Pacino as Milton/Satan, delivering a wonderful, classic, Pacino performance. Well, that might be somewhat unfair, but the film does use Pacino’s reputation for delivering wild performances to it’s advantage, creating an aura of danger and energy around him.
Despite these stronger elements, this is a troubled film. While it is for the most part as subtle as a stylish film about satanic lawyers can really be, there are moments when some terrible special effects go overboard. There are a few scenes with demon face warping that are really just embarrassing. The film barely manages to deliver a proper ending either, using the most hated ‘was it all a dream?’ twist that has amassed unending scorn for good reason. It just barely manages to save itself from complete ruin with Pacino breaking the fourth wall in the final moment.
Being troubled like this means that there really is a great movie in here, just plagued by numerous problems. The pacing, characters, and performances are all spot on and much of the film is presented in this slick and stylish, yet subtle and thoughtful style. But it all breaks down during key sequences where embarrassing special effects take control and go too far at pushing the horror. Yet I would still really recommend this film, despite it falling flat on it’s face during a scene in which a man runs away from shoddy digital blur effects, it also delivers some really chilling sequences like an empty New York street at midday. 3/5