Monday, August 17, 2009

Pacino in the '90s: Part Two

Click here for part one

One of my favorite actors in
the 1970s (The Godfather, Dog
Day Afternoon), Al Pacino
started to slip in the '80s
(Author! Author!, Revolution),
but then regained his footing
in the '90s (Glengarry Glen
Ross, Heat), only to lose it
again in the '00s (88 Minut-
es, Righteous Kill). Here's a
look back at two of his fin-
est '90s performances, one widely celebrated, the oth-
er unjustly maligned. This review has been slightly revised from
the original 1997 text and was never previously published.

(Taylor Hackford, US, 1997, 144 mins.)

Vanity is definitely my favorite sin.
-- John Milton (Al Pacino)

Al Pacino, enjoying a career high after his bravura performance
in Donnie Brasco earlier this year, is perfectly cast as John
Milton, the head of a rather devilish law firm in New York City.

His performance is larger than life, but in a good way, unlike
Michael Mann's still-spectacular Heat, where he put his theatric-
al training to such bad use, making Robert De Niro look like more
of a genius than he already is (when he applies himself, that is).

Pacino never sprouts horns or a tail or any of the other usual de-
vil accoutrements, but the audience knows from the start who he
is and what he wants from Keanu Reeves: his soul, of course. The
reason why, however, isn't made clear until the end of the picture.

Reeves plays Kevin Lomax,
a hotshot Gainsville, FL de-
fense attorney. After win-
ning his latest seemingly
unwinnable case, a mem-
ber of Milton's firm (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) approach-
es him about joining their particularly well paid team.

Though Reeves looks the part of a slick young lawyer, Charlize
Theron, as his supportive spouse Mary Ann, easily upstages him.
She's the Mia Farrow to his John Cassavetes, soliciting more sym-
pathy than her husband, her neighbors, or anyone else in the film.

Theron's Florida accent is fairly believable, too, but Reeves' atro-
cious attempt mars what might otherwise have been a pretty de-
cent performance. Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman)
should've made him drop it altogether—the same goes for Francis
Ford Coppola, who cast him as a Brit in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The credits list two dialect coaches, but they appear to have split
their time between Reeves, Judith Ivey (Kevin's scripture-quot-
ing mother), and Theron—a native South African—when they
should've focused exclusively on their accent-challenged lead.

As for Rick Baker, he concentrates his make-up magic on
members of the firm and their designer-clad wives, recalling his
effects for Jacob's Ladder. The thunderous score and baroque
set design, particularly Milton's office, are exceptional, as well.

I enjoyed the overall story, but it's certainly not for all tastes.
Reeves' Adventures in Law Hell are about as preposterous as
you'd expect and more sadistic than necessary in regards to the
fate that befalls his wife, but things never get as preachy as they
could have,* and the supporting cast, namely Craig T. Nelson
and Delroy Lindo, plays it straight, which adds to the drama.

* So I wrote at the time. In revisting the clip below, I beg to differ.

The twists at the end
contribute to the evil fun.
First you get one, and then
another. Though this indi-
cates that some things nev-
er actually happened, the
ambiguously circuitous
structure still satisfies more than the cop-out ending that conclud-
es the otherwise intriguing Jacob's Ladder in which Tim Rob-
bins' vet can't tell if demons are after him or if he's going crazy.

The kind of risky, go-for-broke enterprise that falls into the dread-
ed "neither fish nor fowl" category, i.e it isn't strictly a legal thriller
or a horror movie, The Devil's Advocate will probably appeal
most to those who've absorbed a few John Grisham adaptations
in their time and are looking for something that starts off like
The Firm before taking a sharp detour into Anne Rice-by-
way-of-Roman Polanski territory and stays there.

Major spoiler alert

Postscript: Where I saw risk, others saw a craven attempt to
court two audiences for the price of one. Fair enough. It's hard-
ly a critical darling, but if you're in the mood for some A-list
camp, you could do far worse. And if you've always wanted to
see Pacino as the Devil singing Sinatra while executing some
soft-shoe moves—and believe me, you do—look no further.

Endnote: Now famed for Michael Clayton and the Bourne
series, writer/director Tony Gilroy assisted with The Devil's
Advocate script. In the years since, Taylor Hackford would go
on to marry Helen Mirren and to direct Ray. Mirren, meanwhile,
would go on to win the Academy Award, for Stephen Frears' The
Queen, and to collect a DBE from Elizabeth's son, Prince Charles,
making Hackford a Royal by proxy. Nice work if you can get it.
Images from Velvet Peach, All Movie Guide, and

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