Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Al Pacino had a sinfully good time playing the biggest bad in The Devil’s Advocate

The Devil’s Advocate
The Devil’s Advocate
Screenshot: YouTube

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Cruella coming to theaters and Disney+, we’re looking at some of our favorite extravagant and over-the-top villains from film history.

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The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

It may be hard to believe now, basking in the joy of Al Pacino’s recent performances in The Irishman and Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, but there was a time in the 1990s when his gifts for hammy bombast were regarded with a stern wariness. After winning an overdue Oscar for, yes, hammy bombast personified in Scent Of A Woman, Pacino went on a watchlist, with critics and fans ready to flag every sinful indulgence of his more outsized actorly tendencies.

Accordingly, 1997 found his quiet (and excellent) performance in Donnie Brasco embraced, while his work in The Devil’s Advocate was—to some degree—condemned. Like Brasco, Devil’s Advocate pairs Pacino with a younger, Gen-X actor, often in a series of walk-and-talks where he gives his young costar the lay of the land. Here, Pacino’s would-be mentee is Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), a prodigiously talented lawyer from Florida, courted by John Milton (Pacino), the head of a high-powered New York law firm. As it turns out, Pacino is actually playing Satan. A non-metaphorical, non-subtextual Old Scratch.

Inevitably, this means Pacino will rant and holler with fiery impunity. With this in mind, the movie, paced with the leisurely, luxury-class confidence of the John Grisham adaptations it shamelessly literalizes, holds Pacino back slightly. He doesn’t speak until the 20-minute mark, and for a while turns up occasionally, as Lomax wrestles with his conscience and spars with his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), who does not take to a life of Manhattan-housewife leisure. “I’m a surprise,” Milton tells Lomax at one point, expounding on his strength as a lawyer. “They don’t see me coming.” Quite the contrary, though: The precise pleasure of The Devil’s Advocate is that the audience does see him coming—even if the trailers didn’t spoil Milton’s identity, the title does—and has to wait a while for Pacino to reveal his full demonic splendor.

In the meantime, Pacino plays his evil like a self-amused card sharp. Rather than going big right away, he slips little improprieties and insinuations into conversation, sometimes speechifying on a smaller scale as he works up to his big, climactic showpiece. That long riff, where Milton lays out his case against God and for himself, is supremely satisfying—a 15-minute action sequence where the fireworks are Pacino’s teasing hand gestures and booming voice as he mockingly exposes God’s contradictory rules. (“Look, but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste.”) This is the most famous section of the movie; it does, after all, feature Pacino screaming about God being an absentee landlord as living-statue bodies writhe in the background. But it’s not the movie’s only standout monologue; there’s also a strong appetizer earlier on, with Pacino going on about a doomed colleague he deems “God’s special little creature.”

By design, the rest of the movie cannot be so slickly verbose. Yet Reeves, in his earnest and grasping way, makes a fine scene partner for Pacino; they were both underestimated in the ’90s before more people came around to their respective acting styles of that period. Like a lot of Reeves performances from around this time, this one is effective, even when he mouth-wrestles a questionable Southern drawl (“AH DON’T LOSE! AH WIN!”). Both the character and the actor are grappling with the thankless task of slipping into a Tom Cruise role, just as Charlize Theron’s self-annihilating angst offers a sort of meta-commentary on the thanklessness of the worried-wife archetype.

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Theron gives the role her all, as she and Connie Nielsen bear the brunt of the movie’s frequent turns into exploitative sleaze. As a legal drama and parable, The Devil’s Advocate is also overlong and obvious, directed with a characteristic lack of subtlety by Taylor Hackford. But at least its moralistic grandstanding assumes a grim, fatalistic quality that goes beyond the reductive notion of the sinful big city. Instead, sin is everywhere. Like Al Pacino going on a delightful overacting tear, it’s impossible to avoid. Doubters will come around eventually.

Availability: The Devil’s Advocate is currently streaming with ads on Tubi and without them on HBO Max. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally on Amazon, Google, YouTube, Microsoft, Redbox, AMC On Demand, DirecTV, and VUDU.

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Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!