The Devil's Advocate (1997)

D: Taylor Hackford
S: Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves

Smooth, entertaining horror drama which not only boasts a tremendously enjoyable performance by Al Pacino, but actually works quite well on a dramatic level most of the time before finally pushing its tongue firmly through its cheek for an operatic climax followed by a love it or hate it ending. A supernatural variant on The Firm, the film follows the adventures of hotshot attorney Keanu Reeves. After 64 straight victories practising in Florida, placing success over morality every time, he attracts the attention of a powerful New York Law Firm headed by demonically charming and sleazy Pacino. Hired to defend murderers and satanists from the course of true justice, he eventually finds he must chose between his spiralling career and his flailing home life which is clearly a choice between the path of righteousness and that of damnation. Only hitch, it really is a path to damnation, because Pacino is The Devil.

Hilarious yet obvious satire in and of itself, this premise is made palatable by the steady hand of Taylor Hackford as director, who never lets it get silly until it really doesn't matter anymore. It develops slowly, and never pushes the horror/shock elements to the fore except in momentary hallucinations. An effective air of corruption defines the world of high-price low-ethics lawyers, and with slight tweaking in the score, cinematography, set decoration and above all in Pacino's performance, a strong sense of unreality keeps us from seeing it all on the level.

As with all good horror films, there is enough of our world on the screen to keep us watching, even when it gets fantastic. More importantly, there is a good sense of the relationship between the fantasy and our reality, in that some of what it has to say about our attitudes to morality, free will and/or the law is quite cogent. Of course, if you can't take the genre, then it won't matter either way.

Pacino becomes the third seventies method actor to play Old Nick in recent years, and does so with aplomb. Following Robert DeNiro's subdued interpretation in Alan Parker's Angel Heart and Jack Nicholson's sly mugging in The Witches of Eastwick, Pacino delivers the best performance of the three. His evil charm is evident in every facial gesture. His easy smile is just a tad too wide to be friendly, his dark Italian eyes have a depth of malice to them. The character has a seductive humour, but a great sense of true power, and Pacino clearly revels in the opportunity to enjoy himself in what amounts to a parody of some of his own screen performances (his mentor/father role over Reeves is a close echo of Donnie Brasco, his final rage recalls Tony Montana in Scarface).

Pacino's performance is the only thing saving the climax from ruining the film altogether, because having watched him do a slow burn all along, one waits for the final fiery showdown with baited breath. You can even forgive the coda, because it gives us one last glimpse of him, and one final giggle to assure us that it can't really be taken very seriously.

This is not to deny the film its right to be straight, and it does work on a serious generic level for most of the running time. Reeves manages to be convincing, and the film plays out the Faustian drama with ease and style. But at the climax, the film was faced with a choice of tone, and it has opted to keep one finger on the cop out button, and it does push it. Yet in the face of late nineties amorality and unflappability, it's no more than could be expected.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.