Friday, October 20, 2017

Reserved Seating: THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE 20 Years Later

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
Our Al Pacino retrospective continues whether you like it or not.

Adam: Welcome to Scary Reserved Seating. I’m Scary Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Scary Rob DiCristino.

Adam: This week, we revisited Taylor Hackford’s 1997 horror-thriller, The Devil’s Advocate. The film tells the story of an undefeated hotshot defense attorney (Keanu Reeves) who gets recruited by a powerful law firm, led by Al Pacino, to be their next blue chip prospect. Charlize Theron is Reeves’ wife and joins him on the move from Florida to the Big Apple. They get more than what they bargained for: Reeves loses his morality, Theron loses her mind, and Pacino is the devil himself.

Rob: Like, literally the devil. It’s the best. I’m not entirely sure when I first saw The Devil’s Advocate, but it’s been long enough since I did that I actually forgot Charlize Theron was the female lead. I need to talk for a second about how great Charlize Theron is at everything (I know you’ll bring up Fate of the Furious, but that’s hardly her fault). We celebrate a lot of actors for turning in consistently good performances that more or less feel the same, but Theron’s range is really undervalued. She’s so good that she makes up for Keanu Reeves’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-but-don’t-worry-because-it’ll-be-back-again Southern accent.
Anyway, I really like The Devil’s Advocate. Pacino is just Pacino enough without overdoing it (until the end, of course). He floats in and out of each scene with that swagger we’ve come to know so well, and he really seems to be having fun. The scene with the holy water (you know, the one where he’s basically mugging to the camera) is a sight to behold. Reeves is still in that phase where he’s feeling out his Leading Man chops, but he’s charismatic enough that he gets away with a lot little bad acting habits that others might not. He’s arch and goofy in that Keanu way. There’s probably a “smarter” version of this script somewhere, but this one is good enough for a mid-range drama/thriller that mom can enjoy. I bet this one rented great.

Adam: Yeah, this had top ten rental of 1998 written all over it. I saw The Devil’s Advocate on video around that time and remember feeling like the movie was dangerous. I don’t feel that way anymore, but I do give it credit for being just a bit sleazier than a usual Hollywood movie from that era (era). It feels very adult. I think part of why the movie feels that way is its A-list cast. I just didn’t expect a movie with Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves to be this hardcore. I may be in the minority, but I think Keanu is great in this movie. He maybe has an arch accent, but the actual acting otherwise is interesting. It was also a bit of a different role for him at the time. He carries the entire movie. Leading (wo)men must be a stable center of gravity (that’s the douchiest thing I’ve ever thought or written) and there are lots of ways of doing that. Reeves is excellent at getting audience sympathy and he’s never less than charismatic in The Devil’s Advocate. Charlize Theron is great in this, too (she’s not in The Fate of the Furious, but that movie is a misbegotten calamity altogether). I forget that she’s always been stellar and that it’s not just from when she did Monster onward. Of course, Pacino is super Pacino and that’s always a gift unto itself. Not to jump the gun, but what do you think of his big monologue about G-D and the devil at the end of the movie? I found it interesting how he basically lawyered the argument that the devil is more sympathetic to man than G-D. It was a nice subtext in that he’s basically defending evil like a defense attorney would.
Rob: Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest I didn’t like Reeves in this, only that you can tell he’s stretching his acting muscles a little bit. As for Pacino’s monologue, I think it drives home the film’s message (that humanity makes its own choices, while Satan merely nurtures them) in a really effective way. He colors God as a sadist who dangles pleasures in front of humanity and expects them not to partake without ever giving a real reason why! He’s almost justifying a lawyer taking on a client he knows to be guilty and doing so with a clear conscience. It’s an extremely seductive argument.

Jumping even further ahead, how do you feel about the time travel aspect of the film’s ending? I find the ironic twist to be really fun.

Adam: Part of #ScaryMovieMonth is that you watch so many movies you forget certain details about them even though you’ve just watched them. So, when you said “time travel aspect,” at first I thought you were telling a joke and then I remembered that they totally did multiverse at the end. I might not be the fan of the exclamation mark as you are. HINTED SPOILERS: I get that the ending makes sense based on the characters’ personalities (so to speak) but I (as a person and not someone reviewing a movie) wish Reeves' and Theron’s characters could enjoy their victory longer rather than it be a punchline. The capper fits this movie well, so it’s appropriate. I just want to see good things for Keanu and Charlize after having them put through hell for over two hours. Even a week or two later, I still can’t stop thinking about how good Theron is in this movie. Probably why she got that coveted Best Supporting Actress - Drama nomination from the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards. But none for Reeves. Blockbuster isn’t perfect. Not until I got there in 1999.
I mentioned this on Twitter, but I have a real soft spot for lawyer movies, especially ones from the ‘90s. I was thinking about The Firm as I watched The Devil’s Advocate and I realized one of my favorite tropes in a lawyer movie are the scenes where they get the perks (e.g. a new house, a new car, exciting locale etc.). It’s probably a reason I liked the episode of Suits I just watched while stuck on an airplane. At first, you’re all above Suits and then it becomes a part of you. A person behind me asked “Who is that?” when Gabriel Macht showed up in Suits. I knew who it was but I said “I don’t know” because there’s power in information: who’s got it, who needs it. Devil Al Pacino would probably be smiling about this. He’s be all (Al Pacino voice) “FUCK ‘EM! THAT’S RIGHT!” then he’d do his Al Pacino saunter and say something weird like “Taste from the viiiiiiiiiiiine!”

Are you a fan of movies about lawyers? Should I see the Keanu-Charlize re-team Sweet November? What do you think of the SPOILER Keanu being the Devil’s son plot detail? I think they could have done without that and just had it be Reeves was a great lawyer and that’s why Pacino kept tabs on him. Did you know that Al was nominated for a Best Villain MTV Movie Award for The Devil’s Advocate? How many movies have the song “Paint it Black”? Answer: 1 out of every 3.

Rob: Lawyer stories lend themselves so easily to great drama (warts and all, I love A Few Good Men), but this one is notable for not relying on the usual courtroom theatrics. I think the Devil, Jr. stuff works, but it’s one of the elements I’m referencing when I say there’s a “smarter” version of this script out there. That relationship is easier to digest for mass audiences than just the idea that Keanu is an expertly-soulless lawyer going through some kind of psychosexual odyssey into Dante’s Inferno. Sins of the father and all that.

I haven’t seen Sweet November, but maybe I’ll save it for our inevitable Keanu retrospective series. One thing I definitely want to mention about The Devil’s Advocate is the production design and effects, which, ‘90s or not, I thought were pretty elegant and effective at times. I read that the stone figure effects during the climax were done by having dancers perform underwater. That’s some craftsmanship, right there.

Can you imagine Pacino accepting an MTV Movie Award in person? Also, he lost to Mike Myers for Austin Powers?

Adam: I love the shitty ‘90s green screen in the scene where Reeves and Connie Nielsen are talking on the balcony. That’s some suspend your disbelief type of stuff right there. I agree the effects are good overall. The production design is immaculate. I love the way New York looks on film; it’s like it’s another character (that was for you, Patrick). Did you know the sculptures in Pacino’s office so closely resembled the work of sculptor Frederick that he sued Warner Bros. and they had to edit the scenes for future VHS releases? This was after some copies had already been made. On IMDB trivia, it says something I remember, which is that some rental copies had stickers attached with a note stating that the stuff in the movie had no relation to Hart’s work. So even in home video, this movie was being lawyered.

I think Pacino’s speech (btw...I can see Mike Myers was back before most people knew he was kind of the worst) would have gone something like this:

“I don’t know if you know this, but I’m in some of your dad’s favorite movies. Ask him about it sometime. I played the devil. The devil in disguise. Whatever you want, I can get. You want a Spice Girls concert? I got the tickets. You want a hot plate of chicken? I can order it in any language. P.S. I also saw and liked Men in Black. That’s who I was here...the devil…but you know that - ergo the award.”
Rob: I was so hoping you’d see that I was teeing you up for that. Everyone go back and listen to Adam’s Pacino voice so you can hear that in your head the way I can. So, it’s a definite Mark Ahn for The Devil’s Advocate. Charlize rules, Pacino does Pacino things, and it features a special appearance by a sleazy Craig T. Nelson.

Adam: Coach is a pretty big asshole in this movie. He was also a piece of shit in Turner & Hooch! It’s becoming a Reserved Seating trope to cover all the Evil T. Nelson’s. Mark Ahn for me too on The Devil’s Advocate. I like it even more now than when I saw it back in the late '90s on video. What do you want to review next week?

Rob: There’s only one release that looks like it was made wholly and specifically for you, my friend, and that’s Happy Death Day. I can’t wait. Until next time...

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. Luuuuuuv Pacino in this. Such good candy. Great double feature when paired with Angel Heart.

  2. The 'God is an absentee landlord' monologue by Pacino is one of the greatest pieces of his acting ever. I love how off-the-wall it is, it cracks me up every time.

  3. I agree that Keanu didn't need to be the Devil's son. Other than that I wouldn't change a thing except at the end when (SPOILER) The smarmy reporter transforms to Pacino. If the reporter just said the line straight up I think it'd be the perfect capper.