Speak of the devil…
There’s one thing that’s so odd about 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate that at the same time is the key to its appeal. And that’s that it’s structured as if lawyer John Milton (Al Pacino) being the literal devil is a secret revealed at the end, in a big third-act speech.
We do, in fact, get that speech — “Satan?” “Call me dad” — but at the same time, the word “Devil” is right there in the title, the character’s name is John Milton, and half the jokes only make sense if we know that Pacino is Satan.
And yes, I said “jokes.” Because despite the film trying to take itself seriously, I’ve laughed my ass off every time I’ve watched it over the years.
Directed by Taylor Hackford and based loosely on a novel by Andrew Neiderman, The Devil’s Advocate is a cross between Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno, and John Grisham’s The Firm. Keanu Reeves plays Kevin Lomax, a young lawyer from Gainesville, Fla., who has never lost a case and appears to specialize in getting obviously guilty rapists and molesters off with acquittals. (The cast includes fictionalized accused pedophiles, like Chris Bauer and Craig T. Nelson, and real ones, like Jeffrey Jones.)
His legal acumen soon draws the attention of a powerful firm in New York, and he agrees to move there with his wife (Charlize Theron) and work for that firm, led by boisterous senior partner John Milton (Pacino.)
Things, of course, get weirder and weirder, all informed by the knowledge of everyone watching the movie from the very beginning that Milton is the devil.
Yes, it’s a pretty funny lawyer joke, sort of building on that old Saturday Night Live sketch where Jon Lovitz plays Mephistopheles on The People’s Court. It’s also hilarious that we see Milton hobnobbing with the likes of Don King and then-Senator Al D’Amato, or that he only travels by subway. (The line “Donald Trump was supposed to be here tonight” hits differently now.)
Perhaps Kevin should have seen something coming when he discovered that Milton appears to have the only law office in Manhattan with an outdoor infinity pool, or that Milton doesn’t have a bed at his penthouse apartment (“where does he fuck?” “Everywhere!”)
Another part of the fun in The Devil’s Advocate is the clash in acting styles. This was at the height of Pacino’s acting-by-yelling phase, and he delightfully tears into the performance, especially in his dramatic final speech.
On the other hand, Keanu Reeves was not yet nearly the talented actor he would later become, here barely managing both the babe-in-the-woods routine and the Southern accent. The same is true of Charlize Theron, although she does get that classic “he took my ovaries, Kevin!” speech.
Also, the film takes it as a given that defense attorneys advocating zealously for their clients, even ones who are guilty and evil, is not only morally wrong but the stuff of demonic influence. No, that’s not how the law works or how it should work.
Even so, The Devil’s Advocate is ludicrously entertaining and holds up quite well. Long a cable TV staple, it can now be streamed free on Tubi.