The Devil's Advocate

on October 17, 1997 by Wade Major
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   Despite the obvious pitfalls associated with casting Keanu Reeves as an attorney, "The Devil's Advocate" actually manages to serve up one of the season's juicier entertainments, a conventional fantasy/thriller executed with unconventional panache and anchored by dazzling performances from Al Pacino and Charlize Theron.
   Reeves plays smalltown Florida legal sensation Kevin Lomax, an undefeated defense attorney whose wily ways and somewhat dubious ethics catch the attention of a certain John Milton (Pacino), founder and head of the high-powered New York law firm Milton, Chadwick and Waters. While a transplant to the big city with an even bigger paycheck sits well with Lomax and his beautiful wife Mary Ann (Theron), it strikes fear into the heart of Lomax's bible-thumping mother (Judith Ivey), seemingly still penitent over Kevin's fatherless, out-of-wedlock birth some three decades earlier.Indeed, mother Lomax's worst fears are soon realized as Kevin is steadily seduced by the fast-lane lifestyle to which he is introduced by the charismatic Milton, in turn introducing stress and strife into a once blissful marriage. Kevin, not being familiar enough with Milton's literary namesake to put two and two together, never for a moment suspects that supernatural forces might be at work in his life, that Milton might be the Devil or that his co-workers might be demonic minions in disguise. These facts are revealed exclusively to Mary Ann, whose resultant fits of frenzy slide her to the verge of a complete nervous breakdown just as Kevin lands a high-profile murder case involving a wealthy developer (Craig T. Nelson).
   Audiences able to stay with the film through this overlong introduction (nearly 90 minutes) will find their efforts rewarded in the latter hour as the masks are slowly drawn away and Milton's sinister plottings revealed. The good news about Reeves is that, although he is still predictably bad and horribly miscast, he is not intolerable, owing much to the riveting performances of his co-stars. Were the movie of a more serious nature, in fact, Theron and Pacino might well be considered legitimate Oscar contenders. In a performance reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's in "The Witches of Eastwick," Pacino is nothing short of enthralling, using to magnanimous effect the loud-mouthed hamminess that has become his post-Oscar trademark.
   With the exception of a cheap, derivative post-climatic tag and a penchant for letting dialogue scenes drag on a bit too long, screenwriters Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy have respectably adapted Andrew Neiderman's novel, giving director Taylor Hackford the chance to vigorously, if bombastically, exercise the highly stylistic sensibilities first demonstrated in "Dolores Claiborne." "The Devil's Advocate" is not, by any stretch, a return to the form of "An Officer and a Gentleman" for Hackford, but it is nevertheless a solid effort aptly suited to the material. And that much most audiences should appreciate.    Starring Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Jones, Judith Ivey and Craig T. Nelson. Directed by Taylor Hackford. Written by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Arnold Kopelson and Anne Kopelson. A Warner Bros. release. Thriller. Rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language. Running time: 152 min.
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