Devil’s Advocate (review)

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Speak of the Devil


How’s this for the height of wit and cleverness? Satan — get this — is a lawyer! Har har! And who knew? The tenth circle of hell is… New York City! How original! Quelle surprise!

Devil’s Advocate has no idea how unintentionally funny it is. Keanu Reeves as a lawyer? Simply hilarious. Poor Keanu — he’s so cute but he’s just dumb as a post. His performance as hotshot Florida lawyer Kevin Lomax would be embarrassing to watch if it wasn’t so good for a few chuckles. Squirm and giggle as you watch him pull a kind of Sherlock Holmes routine on prospective jurors (“Ah, I see you’ve recently returned from India, where you suffered from malaria and were accidentally shot with an elephant gun by your native manservant”). It’s patently obvious that half the words passing Keanu’s lips are utter mysteries to him. And his Southern accent? Don’t even ask. (On a thematically related note, there are many — myself among them — who hold that Keanu is the Anti-Christ. Examine the evidence for yourself here.)
Kevin is lured to New York — “a dwelling place of demons,” his Scripture-quoting mom (Judith Ivey) warns him (and boy, she knows wherefrom she speaks) — by a job offer from a big law firm. His new boss: John Milton (Al Pacino), the Prince of Darkness himself. (Get it? Milton? “Paradise Lost”? Devil’s Advocate is loaded with pseudointellectual literary allusions for your continued amusement.)

Lemme tell ya, being the Evil Overlord is a mighty fine thing in New York. You get a killer penthouse apartment, babes dripping off you, ringside seats for fights at the Garden, a receptionist named Caprice. And yet (as late-night subway rides have always made me suspect), Satan believes the subway is “the only way to travel.” Devil’s Advocate also shows us the gentler, more human side of Satan: he offers hair and beauty tips to impressionable young women. Really, not such a bad guy.

Cheesy humor aside, Devil’s Advocate can’t help but disappoint. Milton’s skyscraper office has dramatic balcony up in the stratosphere above lower Manhattan, with no barriers of any kind to stop you from going splat in Foley Square. It’s the perfect place for a rain-soaked, backlit-by-lightning, ultimate battle between good and evil. I waited for it, patiently, anticipating Keanu’s awkward grimaces as he fights to save his soul. The confrontation, when it happens, is safely indoors and doesn’t ascend to such cheese. What a gyp.

And then, in Kevin’s first big New York case, there’s Craig T. “Coach” Nelson as a Donald Trump type accused of triple murder. Is there a less menacing guy in Hollywood than Craig T. Nelson? Might as well cast Mr. Rogers as a homicidal maniac.

Al Pacino isn’t even all that interesting as Milton/The Horned One, until the movie slams to a halt for an extended rant on his part. But even way over the top and slightly out of control, Pacino only shows up poor Keanu as a cardboard cutout.

The few moments really worth the time and effort necessary for Devil’s Advocate are the couple of cameos by famous folk playing themselves, greeting Milton effusively… people you always knew were in league with Satan. For the most part, this flick is spectacularly unchilling, consistently goes for shock over fright, and smacks you in the face with a cheap Wizard of Oz, Bobby’s-in-the-shower ending.

It’s enough to make you long for classic horror movies like The Omen.

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