“The Devil’s Advocate” is a fairly entertaining supernatural potboiler that finally bubbles over with a nearly operatic sense of absurdity and excess. With one foot in the recognizable world of courtroom battles and difficult personal relationships, and the other in the realm of human-form demons and bizarre special effects, pic strains to be taken seriously when the narrative leads resolutely in the opposite direction. But the dramatic situations are engaging in their own pulpy way, and the showy performances by leads Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino, as well as by a number of others, keep the proceedings lively enough. Initial B.O. should be strong, with fairly fast drop-off likely.
In an attention-getting opening sequence, Kevin Lomax (Reeves) is presented as a dream (not to mention dreamy) defense attorney. Although aware that his client is a scumbag child molester, the dashing young man puts all moral qualms to the side in doing everything it takes to get his man acquitted, and afterward celebrates his continued unbroken string of court victories with his gorgeous, adoring wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron).
Still, this is only Gainesville, Fla., so when Kevin is lured by flattery and a fat paycheck to apply his jury-selection skills to a big case in New York City, he accepts, despite the warnings of his scripture-quoting mother (Judith Ivey) that Gotham is “the dwelling place of demons.” Once there, he is suitably impressed by the extravagant offices of the host law firm, by the extraordinary international range of its clients and, most of all, by the big boss, John Milton (Pacino), a charismatic, challenging, extremely persuasive character who has little trouble convincing Kevin and Mary Ann to remain in Manhattan.
Not only is Kevin immediately put on the express elevator for stardom at the firm, but he and his wife are given the ultimate privilege of a deluxe apartment in Milton’s own luxury Fifth Avenue building. So while Kevin is taken under Milton’s suspiciously generous wing and put to work earning his $400-per-hour rate, Mary Ann is left to decorate their home and come under the dubious influence of big-spending, good-times neighbor Jackie (Tamara Tunie).
Before long, what was once professional excellence and determination in Kevin becomes an unpleasant ruthlessness, a belief that not only can he do no wrong, but that the only wrong would lie in losing. Under the personal tutelage of Milton, the young man first successfully defends a bizarre animal-sacrifice practitioner (an unbilled Delroy Lindo), and is then put to a heavy test by one of the firm’s biggest clients, real estate tycoon Alexander Cullen (Craig T. Nelson), a singularly unpleasant man who, from all appearances, is probably guilty of murdering his wife and two others.
Left largely alone, with her husband at Milton’s beck and call, Mary Ann begins to go a bit bonkers; at the one-hour mark, pic finally edges over into the occult when she sees Jackie’s face briefly transform into that of a hideous monster. Shortly thereafter, in a rather intense sex scene, Mary Ann goes further into orbit when she realizes Kevin seems to be somewhere else. In fact, she’s right, as he can’t get Christabella (Connie Neilsen), a stunning redhead from work, out of his mind.
Things get so bad at home that even the hedonistic Milton takes heed and advises Kevin to drop the Cullen case. Kevin however, insists he’ll tend to Mary Ann after he gets his client acquitted, a matter that ultimately proves more vexing and torturous than anyone bargained for. But by then it’s too late for Mary Ann, paving the way for the ultimate showdown between Kevin and his devious boss.
Although it is not explicitly stated until deep into the picture, the trailer makes no secret of the fact that Pacino plays the Devil of the title. It’s not that plenty of clues aren’t planted along the way: ever-burning fireplaces in Milton’s office and home, his lack of need for sleep, his mysterious power over adversaries, not to mention his general licentiousness and his very name.
Accentuating all this with occasional wild looks in his eyes, an insinuating cackle and flicks of his tongue, Pacino fully takes over in an elaborately theatrical climactic sequence in which he finally lays his cards on the table for his protege and invites him to join the game. Seemingly in on a joke to which Reeves was not made privy, Pacino romps around like an actor instructed to cast all restraint to the wind, as his Satan derides God as Earth’s “absentee landlord” and claims the 20th century as “all mine,” with the promise of greater triumphs to come.
As if the actor’s gleeful cavortings while trumpeting his character’s accomplishments were not enough, prolonged episode is backed by the spectacle of an erotic marble mural becoming animate, as well as by the injection of a surprising, and more human, sexual component. Climax is startlingly effective, but its impact, and that of the entire picture, is seriously undercut by a puzzling coda seemingly designed to end things on a lighter, more whimsical note.
Up to the end, by which time the context has so radically changed that it seems he’s acting in a different picture, Reeves does a serious and pleasing job in believably conveying Kevin’s legal skill, personal allure and willingness to be distracted from domestic life by the heady experience of big-city success. Sporting a reasonable enough Southern accent, Reeves more than holds his own with any number of seasoned thesps in delivering one of his more creditable performances.
Although some of her lines, especially early on, appear to be badly dubbed or synched, Theron registers sympathetically with the demanding part of Kevin’s deteriorating wife, while Ivey as Kevin’s devout mother, Nelson as the upper-crust murder suspect and Heather Matarazzo as a trial witness harassed by Kevin all come across vibrantly. Biggest impression among the supporting players however, is made by newcomer Neilsen, who is transfixing as the vixen who turns the young attorney’s head.
Taylor Hackford directs the screenplay by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, based on Andrew Neiderman’s novel, with a conviction that does not vary until granting Pacino free rein in the final act. Despite its considerable length, pic seems to be missing things at various junctures, as characters often come and go with odd abruptness.
Production values are ultra-plush, bespeaking a lavish budget. Production designer Bruno Rubeo pulled out all the stops in fashioning a uniquely conceived world for Milton and his firm, one marked by the most expensive materials and the last word in chic. Numerous high-society party scenes add further luster, although the many cameos (by Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, Don King and others) seem like needless distractions. Andrzej Bartkowiak’s cinematography shows it all off majestically, James Newton Howard’s score has power, and Rick Baker’s demon creations and Richard Greenberg’s visual effects trigger the sought-after jolts.