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Salt Lake City Weekly Examining Motives

"The Devil's Advocate" Is A Wild Ride Into The Age-Old Battle Between Good And Evil

By Mary Dickson

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  It's not much of a leap to think that attorneys are in league with the devil. In Taylor Hackford's Faustian tale, The Devil's Advocate, that's literally the case as Al Pacino plays the Beastmaster himself, head of a huge international law firm of ace attorneys who represent, among others, arms dealers, drug dealers, chemical weapons and toxic waste manufacturers.

His latest recruit is a sharp young defense attorney from Gainsville, Fla., who has never lost a case. Kevin, played by Keanu Reeves in a one-note performance, is an ambitious, once-idealistic narcissist who moves with his wife (Charlize Theron) to New York, despite his Bible-touting mother's admonitions that it is the "dwelling place of demons." Kevin happily takes the firm's huge salary, the luxurious two-floor Manhattan apartment and all the other accouterments of success he is offered to do the firm's bidding. His first assignment is, appropriately enough, an animal-sacrifice case, which he smoothly defends as a matter of freedom of religion. He has, of course, unwittingly made the proverbial pact with the devil, sold his soul to Satan. It's Mephistopheles and Faust all over.

"Why attorneys?" Kevin asks Milton when he finally figures it out. "Because law is the ultimate backstage pass. There are now more students in law schools than lawyers walking the streets." That is the film's most chilling revelation. Director Hackford obviously has little use for attorneys, whom he sees as controlling the political system, but then he's just playing into public perceptions.

Al Pacino, having the time of his life, gives a deliciously devilish tour de force performance. He makes one helluva wily devil. It's a stunning performance that's his best work yet. He teases, cajoles, shamelessly flirts, constantly surprises, and has a joie de vivre unmatched by mere mortals. "I'm the hand up Mona Lisa's skirt. I'm the surprise," he says. "They don't see me coming." After telling a subway punk (in Spanish no less) who pulls a knife on him that he'd better go home and check on his wife who right now is atop his green bedspread with his best friend, Milton chortles with utter glee, "Invigorating!"

He's having a ball seeing what fools these mortals can be and what mischief they make. He refuses to accept that lame excuse, "the devil made me do it." This devil just sits back and gleefully watches as men wallow in their instincts. Buck up, man. Accept responsibility. "Free will, ain't it a bitch?" he retorts snappily when accused of setting things up. He's the first line of coke, the walk into a strange girl's bedroom, pleasure without strings. He's opportunity just waiting for an eager taker.

At every step, Milton gives his young protegé a chance to do the right thing. It's like a series of tests that Kevin just keeps flunking. "Your wife is most important," Milton reminds him. "She's sick and she needs you. You don't have to take this case." But Kevin takes the case. When Kevin expresses doubts about a triple homicide defendants's innocence, Milton again suggests he dump the case. But not Kevin. He doesn't want to break a winning streak, and he devotes his every waking hour to keeping his record intact.

The Devil's Advocate
Of lawyers and Lucifer: Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves in The Devil's Advocate.
Directed by
Taylor Hackford
Al Pacino
Keanu Reeves
Charlize Theron

A true tale for the '90s, The Devil's Advocate is a cynical piece, painting a none-too-pretty picture of humanity and where it's headed. As this Satan views mankind at the approach of the millennium, he sees a "human appetite sharpened to the point that it can split atoms," a cyberage in which "every human becomes an aspiring emperor," a runaway train of "huge egos and gold-plated desire," where everyone's so busy watching out for themselves no one's watching out for the planet, or in Milton's inimitable words "everybody's ready to fistfuck the planet."

Those with religious sensibilities will likely be offended by some of the film. Milton's view of God, for instance, is not particularly flattering. "God likes to watch; he's a prankster. He gives man instincts for his own amusement then sets gag rules to do just the opposite." To him, God's an "absentee landlord," while "I've been here from day one with my hands in the dirt."

Regardless of your religious convictions, you'll impressed by Pacino's stunning delivery. With his hair slicked back and hennaed an unnatural reddish color, he looks more vampirish than satanic. "The 20th century is mine!" he gloats. "I'm peaking!"

Hackford's film doesn't derive its thrills or chills through special-effects wizardry (though he dabbles in them a bit) but through moral dilemmas. The women surrounding Milton — lawyers in his firm or spouses of lawyers in his firm — are high-fashion beguilers. They're devil-girl, lip-smacking temptresses who morph into monstrous apparitions only when Kevin's wife, MaryAnn, is looking. Kevin's biggest sin, outside of ambition and vanity, is neglecting his wife and leaving her with the "trinity of options — working, playing, or breeding." MaryAnn doesn't do well alone in a strange city. Her husband's a company man and the company's taken his soul. Unfortunately, she becomes the innocent victim of his ambition, slowing losing her mind to Milton's pranks. The film gets a bit outlandish in her decline and demise. Though creepy, it doesn't come close to anything out of The Exorcist.

The Devil's Advocate is modern parable, not fright fest. It's a wild ride into that age-old territory: The eternal battle between good and evil, between succumbing to base instincts and controlling them. It's a cautionary tale that will leave a lot of locals polishing their CTR rings and vowing to be better people. "You'd better examine your motives," I overheard one man in the audience admonish his wife on their way out of the theater. After seeing this whopper, a lot of people will be doing just that.

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