Ham Salad: "The Devil's Advocate"
You can tell a lot about a person by what kind of cinematic Devil they prefer. Personally, I prefer the quiet, seductive Devil, the one who never has to raise his voice, like Viggo Mortensen in The Prophecy. Others like a more traditional presentation of Beelezub, like Tim Curry in Legend. Then there are the party animals who like their Lucifer to tear into the scenery like an In ‘n’ Out Double Double, as with Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate.
Now, before I go on, let me clarify: “Ham Salad” is not necessarily intended to bash a performance, or the movie that it’s in. True, there are a couple I don’t actually enjoy, like Nicolas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss, but others, like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, I genuinely love. If nothing else, I appreciate the commitment, the energy, that went into these performances. These actors showed up on set ready to act, God bless ‘em, sometimes much harder than the material requires, but at least they’re trying. I’d rather watch Eric Roberts in The Pope of Greenwich Village six times in a row than watch anything Bruce Willis, who can barely be arsed to cash the checks he earns, has done in the past decade.
That being said, I may need to retire the column after this, because ham doesn’t get any juicier than Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate.
The Devil’s Advocate might be the platonic ideal of the good-bad movie. It’s a deeply silly, not as clever as it thinks take on Paradise Lost, in which lawyers are portrayed as literal demons, working for the firm of His Infernal Majesty, Esq. But it’s also creepy and effective, featuring an excellent early performance by Charlize Theron, playing a young housewife who is gaslit into believing that the demons that really exist are only in her imagination. It knows what kind of movie it is, ending with a character grinning directly into the camera as “Paint it Black” plays over flaming credits.
That character is Pacino as John Milton, initially disguised as a journalist, because of course journalists are all Knights in Satan’s Service too. Up and coming young lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), despite knowing his pedophile client is guilty, breaks down a young witness on the stand and wins the case. Impressed with such a display of craven ambition, Milton invites Kevin to join his ritzy law firm in New York City. This is all part of an elaborate plan to get Kevin, who is actually Milton’s son, to have sex with his half-sister and conceive the Antichrist.
So you see, a plot this rich in camp cannot be played straight, certainly not by the villain. This version of the Devil can’t have the soft-spoken, “here I come to steal yo girl” energy of the previously mentioned Viggo Mortensen in The Prophecy (and he isn’t technically the villain anyway, that’s Christopher Walken, who does indeed play his role in a big and broad fashion). Agreeing to play himself in Jack and Jill aside, Pacino is no dummy, and he comes into this movie with not just both guns blazing, but a rocket launcher strapped to his back and a pouch full of grenades around his waist. Every scene he’s in, he turns the scenery into splinters, and leaves every other actor in the vicinity looking like Wile E. Coyote after he’s had an Acme product blow up in his face.
Pacino doesn’t recite dialogue, he gives playing to the back row speeches about the human condition and free will. The quietest he gets is when he taunts a stranger in Spanish about knowing that the man’s wife is off somewhere smoking crack and engaging in anal sex. This is a movie that is impossible not to love, just for its sheer audacity. It suggests that God is asleep at the wheel, and that the Devil interferes with humans because he likes them, and wants some of them to succeed (although “succeed” in this case often seems to involve the deaths of other people, but eh, details). On its own that would be more than enough, but when you have Al Fuckin’ Pacino proclaiming this stuff at a volume equal to that of a Motörhead concert, it’s like angels are hand-feeding you the finest French cheese. This is your reward for sitting through so many hours of boring bad movies. Yes. Luxuriate in it. You’ve earned this, baby.
You might think that it’s the climax, during which Kevin figures out who Milton really is (“Satan.” “Call me Dad”), when Pacino disobeys the laws of gravity and goes flying into orbit. And indeed he does, just launching himself into space like Neil Armstrong. But for me, the film truly reaches its apex a little earlier, when Milton waxes philosophical on colleague Eddie Barzoon (or rather “EDDIE BARZOOOOOOOOON!!!”, as Milton calls him at one point, in perhaps the greatest single line reading of all time). Eddie (Jeffrey Jones) threatens to report the law firm to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, not out of any sense of propriety, but because he’s mad that Kevin gets assigned a case that should have gone to him. It’s interesting to note that, despite being about the timeless battle between good and evil, there are no “heroes” in The Devil’s Advocate. Even when Kevin realizes that most of what happens in the movie is a dream and is given a chance to set things right, doing “the right thing” is still mostly self-serving and plays him right back into the hands of Milton anyway. It’s almost as if the Devil himself wrote the screenplay, and not the guy who wrote the Bourne movies.
But I digress. In a mindblowing “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” speech to Kevin, Milton talks about Eddie, who sounds an awful lot like a certain sitting President of the United States (“250 pounds of self-serving greed on wheels”). “As we’re scrambling from one deal to the next, who’s got his eye on the planet?,” Milton ponders. “As the air thickens, the water sours, even the bees’ honey takes on the metallic taste of radioactivity. And it just keeps coming, faster and faster. There’s no chance to think, to prepare -- it’s “buy futures,” “sell futures,” when there is no future. We got a runaway train, boy. We got a billion Eddie Barzoons all jogging into the future. Every one of them is getting ready to fistfuck God's ex-planet, lick their fingers clean, as they reach out toward their pristine cybernetic keyboards to tot up their fucking billable hours.”
This goes on for nearly three whole minutes, uninterrupted, while Eddie is chased around Central Park and eventually attacked by demons disguised as angry homeless people, who beat him to death with sticks.
I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything, but I might be making a pretty solid case for The Devil’s Advocate being the greatest movie of the 90s.
It’s surprising to remember that Pacino has, to date, won only one Oscar, for playing a blind asshole in Scent of a Woman. That Oscar was less an award for his performance in that than correcting an accounting error for the performances he should have won for, like The Godfather II and Dog Day Afternoon. Now that he’s won an Academy Award, a Tony, and an Emmy, you’d think that Pacino, like his colleague Robert DeNiro, would spend the latter years of his career dedicated to not giving a shit about what movies he appears in, let alone giving a good performance in them. Nevertheless, he’s appearing in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, and going by the trailer, appears to be as committed to dismantling the scenery with his bare hands as he’s always been.
It’s inspiring, but it’s also a little alarming. Al Pacino is almost 80 years old, surely acting that hard must put him at risk for a shattered hip, or a hernia. On the other hand, maybe performances like The Devil’s Advocate are what keeps him going, and what gives him life. God knows it does for me.