As a high-concept mating of two familiar genres, the police story and the supernatural thriller, “Fallen,” Gregory Hoblit’s sophomore effort, is a movie that might frustrate aficionados of both genres, despite some strong elements. Playing a bright detective who’s tormented by conflicting forces of good and evil, handsome topliner Denzel Washington has the almost impossible task of holding together a convoluted picture that’s only intermittently suspenseful and not very engaging emotionally or intellectually. Warners release should enjoy a reasonably decent opening due to its star power, but, ultimately, B.O. results will fall below expectations.
Producers Charles Roven and the late Dawn Steel were reportedly so excited by Nicholas Kazan’s spec script that they rushed the film into production within a year after purchasing it. Nonetheless, those familiar with Kazan’s previous work, particularly his wittily acerbic screenplay for “Reversal of Fortune,” will be disappointed with his writing here. Kazan has constructed a hodgepodge of a movie, one that freely borrows ideas from supernatural movies of the 1970s like “The Exorcist”; the sci-fier “The Hidden,” in which an outer-space creature implants himself in the bodies of innocent civilians and causes them to commit violent crimes; TV’s “The X-Files”; and particularly “Seven,” in the conception of a brilliant serial killer with a philosophical/aesthetic bent.
Tale is framed by the narration of homicide detective John Hobbes (Washington), which, in a bizarre pre-credits sequence, tells the audience about “the time I almost died.” Unfolding as one long flashback, story then switches to a prison cell, where a demonic serial killer named Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas) is about to be executed. Prior to witnessing the execution with his partner, Jonesy (John Goodman), and their tough supervisor, Lt. Stanton (Donald Sutherland), Hobbes visits the prisoner. In a highly disturbing scene, Reese suddenly grabs Hobbes’ hand, hysterically recites a text in an indecipherable language and starts singing the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is on My Side” (which becomes a motif in the narrative).
Back at work, Hobbes and Jonesy are confronted with a new series of brutal murders, committed in the same style peculiar to Reese. In a subplot that recalls the far superior movies “Seven” and “Copycat,” bodies are found in the bathtub with numbers and words carved on their chests. Remembering a clue Reese provided concerning a name missing from a chart of decorated cops who died, Hobbes begins a thorough investigation that ultimately changes his life.
It turns out that the missing name belongs to officer Milano, who was under investigation for misconduct and a few months later was found dead in an isolated cabin, presumably from a gun accident. A meeting with the officer’s daughter, Gretta (Embeth Davidtz), a theol-ogy professor, provides all kinds of cryptic hints that throw Hobbes deeper and deeper into the occult. Turning point occurs when Hobbes, by now obsessed with the case, drives to the cabin and finds the Aramaic word azazel (which means “evil incarnate”) written on the wall by Milano just before he died.
Hobbes’ all-consuming search is intercut with brief scenes that observe his daily life with his family, his brother Art (Gabriel Casseus) and his young nephew Sam (Michael J. Pagan). Latter two relatives eventually become involved in the increasingly diabolical intrigue.
All along, Stanton suspects that the murders might be the work of a rogue cop. Indeed, soon Hobbes himself becomes a prime suspect in a subplot that recalls numerous “wrong man” pics. The scenes taking place at the police station are some of the best in the otherwise meandering movie, for they convey with humor the tensions that prevail in the cops’ supposedly “routine” work.
Unfortunately, Kazan and director Hoblit, aiming higher than mere suspense, endow their movie with a pretentiously philosophical theme: “Evil is eternal and knows no bounds,” Hobbes says in his solemn narration. Clearly, the detective is meant to embody an Every-man who’s forced to question his own beliefs about the forces of light and darkness and search for the absolute truth.
Hoblit, who last year made a modest feature debut with the court thriller “Primal Fear,” directs his portentous movie in a self-conscious manner that accentuates Kazan’s embarrassingly silly dialogue, particularly in the scenes between Hobbes and Gretta. As if to deny his TV origins (“L.A. Law”), Hoblit uses a bombastic visual style that’s more artsy than artful. The narration, which doesn’t contribute much to the proceedings, adds an unnecessary layer.
Making a valiant effort to lend the movie a semblance of realism, the gifted Washington is finally defeated by a cumbersome plot that gets progressively complicated without being complex and is pompously showy rather than genuinely scary or involving. Goodman, Sutherland and James Gandolfini (as a nosy cop) acquit themselves honorably with their supporting roles, which are more deftly scripted than the lead.
Tech credits, especially stylish lensing by Newton Thomas Sigel (who shot “The Usual Suspects”) and brisk editing by Lawrence Jordan, are notable, though with a running time of two-plus hours, pic extends its welcome by at least 15 minutes.