When Andrew Neiderman's The Devil's Advocate was translated from book to screen, I became truly wrapped up in a film whose mystery isn't so much shrouded as it is revealed with every line of dialogue. The constant play on words and the allusions are impossible to miss. It's not a spoiler to say that Al Pacino's John Milton character is the devil incarnate. The advertising for the film doesn't hide this fact, the artwork is positioned and colored just accordingly to clue in the curious, and the movie itself wants you to know what's going on behind the scenes. Yet, despite what would normally be a film's great reveal being "ruined," the movie is even more enjoyable because we are aware of it from the get go. Unlike other suspense thrillers that rely on last-minute twists (Shyamalan, anyone?), with the film falling apart if it doesn't quite make sense or is discovered early, this one hold up.
Our main character, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), isn't exactly a likable character or someone we want to learn more about. The man is a snake charmer, an attorney with an undefeated record who is like a god among men, the big fish in a dixie cup. Throughout the film, we learn little about his personality, aside from his desire to thrive and succeed at any cost. His home life with wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) doesn't make us like him much more, as the woman is held hostage to her husband's ambition, her life uprooted and moved from Florida to New York when Lomax is recruited by a major law firm headed by Milton. Lomax regularly puts his work ahead of her happiness, with grave consequences.
'Devil's Advocate' is not a pretty film. It's also not a straight forward one. Part criminal procedural, part morality play, and part supernatural thriller, the odd blending of genres creates a tantalizing final product, a guilty pleasure that's not particularly cerebral, yet manages to hit just the right notes and leave its audience fulfilled. The film is visceral, cold, and cruel, with a dark side hidden right beneath the surface, waiting to scratch and claw its way into you, teasing danger and excitement with its sense of the unknown, both in how deep the rabbit hole truly goes and in what the ultimate outcome of the situation will be. Even in repeat viewings, the film still works.
It's not a perfect picture by any means, and it doesn't hide its shortcomings well. Most notably, the lengthy runtime (a whopping 144 minutes) can leave viewers a bit exhausted by the end. The acting can be hit or miss. The supporting characters (including Jeffrey Jones, Connie Nielsen, and Craig T. Nelson) seldom get time to shine, particularly those who are pivotal to the plot and its ever-important climax. And, lest we forget, it can be hard to stomach the "cast the pretty boy who seems kind of stupid as a lawyer" cliche that was recently revisited by 'The Lincoln Lawyer.'
Still, with these shortcomings known, 'Devil's Advocate' offers a hell of a good time to those patient enough to stick with it. Few films offer the thorough attention to detail and a wide ranging, expansive tale the way this Taylor Hackford directed flick does. The characters weave in and out of the story without any notable hang-ups, and we're given the perfect amount of exposure to the fallen angel himself, as he rears his head and influence to greater and greater effect. It's the little things that are done right, the moments that one might not catch on first viewing, yet become clearer and a bit tongue-in-cheek as one revisits this film (like Milton's habit of subterranean transport, a clear reference to his position in the universe). Even simple use of time lapsed skyline shots give an ominous, brooding tone, with just the right tint creating a rather demonic look to the intimidating New York skyscrapers as they reach to the heavens. Also, there's the fact that Al Pacino's superhuman ability to yell so loud that he sets himself on fire is captured magnificently...can't forget that!
'Devil's Advocate,' which is the least subtle yet most appropriate name this could have ever been given, teases just enough of the supernatural to count as a horror film of sorts, gives us just enough time in the courtroom to appease the legal eagles, and still manages to put us in the shoes of a man whose decisions directly affect each and every person around him, whether he realizes it or not. The film truly does belong in the career highlights of all involved.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Devil's Advocate' arrives on Blu-ray on a Region A/B/C BD50 disc with no items of note in terms of the packaging or menu design. Just the basics, including Warner's more modern button menu tab system. The film is offered only in an "unrated director's cut" edition which runs a lengthy 144 minutes.
While the cut of the film is unrated, that does not mean the film is unedited. The white, marble-esque statue behind Milton's desk in his penthouse was determined to violate the copyright of Frederick Hart's Ex nihilo sculpture, and the packaging on this Blu-ray has a red bar on the back cover indicating this violation, indicating the lack of connection. Early DVD pressings of the film included a sticker on the cover indicating the lack of connection between the film and the art, while the appearance in the film was left untouched. Every subsequent pressing of the film (at least domestically), including this Blu-ray, feature a censored/altered version of this statue, and the details of the changes can be found here. Due to the editing to remove/alter the sculpture, there are scenes that do not make sense in the film, including a moment where Reeve's Lomax character has a prolonged moment staring at what is now nothing but an ill-defined swirl, as well as moments where alternate takes from different angles are used to minimize the presence of this altered artwork.
For those interested in the original version of the film, Amazon has two listings of the film on DVD, one of which is specifically for the now-long out-of-print edition. Since this item is only available from third party merchants and individual collectors, one must use caution, as misinformed or greedy sellers can sometimes "mistake" a common item for something rare and valuable. To purchase said edition, click here.
In the opening scenes of 'Devil's Advocate,' I was damn near blown away by how amazing the picture looked. The superb textures and finer details, the appropriate depth, the way clothing just begged to be touched and rubbed, I was more than impressed. Stray hairs would leap off skin, including some random peach fuzz, and even the slight noise issues that drew the eye didn't affect how I thought this was going to be a top tier catalogue release.
Then the rest of the film happened.
Presented in 1080p (AVC MPEG-4 encode, 2.40:1 aspect ratio), 'Devil's Advocate' has a two-toned feel to the video. When at its peak, it's hard to deny the sheer power and high definition this disc brings to the table; however, as the film rolls on, more and more soft shots, sometimes prolonged, creep their way in, dampening the ecstatic highs with muddled, ugly lows. Contrast levels may not be 100% right, as there are some minor edge bleeding concerns, while light color wavering in a few brief moments certainly is concerning. Skin tones jump around, often wearing a bit too much rose, but considering the theme of demons and hell, it's hard to tell if this was intentional or not. While I thoroughly enjoyed how clearly defined the mundane little bits like grass blades and asphalt on the street looked, the high was again hit by some random edge enhancement and bad visual effects, particularly the balcony sequence, where characters are lit in a manner that cannot possibly match the setting. The shifting, blurring, ugly statue in Milton's office? That's not entirely this disc's fault. If anything, this Blu-ray brings to light how rushed the job fixing the copyright infringement was.
Presented with lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 'Devil's Advocate' has a nice, warm, somewhat solid audio track. The rear channels get great usage, from microphone echoes to some disturbing footsteps on the streets of New York that localize and hit all angles, aimed at disorienting viewers and further selling the point of being a big fish suddenly in the ocean instead of a small pond. Sometimes these rear effects are a little sketchy (while localized effects can also feel forced and out of place), but that's mostly the fault of the film's dated sound design. Bass levels are surprisingly decent, albeit mostly inactive. Dialogue can be a bit spiked, harsh, and awkward sounding, but I had zero difficulty with any line in the film. Fans will generally find this track more than suitable and should have no complaints. High end gear owners won't get much of a workout.
I love 'Devil's Advocate.' It's a film that can be taken seriously, or one that can be laughed at from end to end. With a stellar cast, the movie guides us through a whirlwind of delectable sin and painful discovery, and while it's hardly the smartest flick out there, it's most definitely well balanced. Sadly, it also runs too long. This Blu-ray release of the film features video that teases (and sometimes pleases), and audio that is quite a bit ahead of its time. Fans will definitely recognize the extreme upgrade from the old DVDs, making this an easy title to recommend.