When Horn Head Met Scar Face
The 1997 film The Devil's Advocate is a greasy, burnt ham and cheese on rye, which is nevertheless irresistibly delicious in the guilty-pleasure hours of the night.
Let's get the obvious out of the way: "Big ham" doesn't begin to describe Al Pacino in this performance. If you give Al Pacino a role as the Devil and give him script oversight to boot, there's no way you'll come out with anything but the big pig blimp they fly over the audience's heads at Pink Floyd concerts.
But what do you want? It's the friggin' devil! He's supposed to be hammy and cheesy. The devil is a tough role and it's one of history's most over-used stock characters. Pacino has a big pair of hooves to fill and he simply works his ass off to fill them. This movie was not made so that you might be enlightened, enriched, or inspired to call for accolades. It was made to be a greasy, salty, tasty, hot mess that you'd only devour at 2 AM by the light of the incriminating refrigerator bulb after a night of binge drinking.
Oh, sure, the script has leonine ambitions. That's why it can stand up so well. At various points, the characters get sharpened into just enough detail, the conversations wade just enough into philosophical debate, and the jump scares and creepy twists have come at just enough of a pace to make you feel like you're watching a Real Movie. That's just the salt on the grease. Make no mistake, this script was written to the exact same effect: to be tasty, fattening, and enjoyable to the point where you'll be ashamed of yourself afterwards.
Now I'll admit the biggest flaw: The whole story takes forever and a half to get to the point. This is a common malady exhibited by religious horror films. They drag out a big suspenseful buildup to the reveal that Al Pacino is the Devil Himself. Yeah, that's, you know, kind of in the title. It's like in The Exorcist where they waste the first hour doing tests on Regan to see what's wrong with her; but the name of the movie is The Exorcist, not The Exorcist Who Wasn't Needed Because It Turned Out To Be ADHD. Don't worry, there's still plenty of twists and turns in The Devil's Advocate besides the big deal main character.
The story also feels crowded with way too many supporting characters and subplots. Especially, the whole story arc with Mary Ann feels blown out of proportion to the rest of the goings-on. You could have calved Mary Ann away to make another Rosemary's Baby and still had plenty of movie to go around for everybody else.
But along the way, I guarantee you will not care about these shortcomings, because the script is doing backflips to keep you invested. Every five minutes Al Pacino gets to launch on another Shakespearean rant translated into New York grit and Wall Street greed. Genuine scares and creeps are everywhere. Seductive little scamp imps cavort about, reminding us that Satan has more than one way to tempt you. Everybody in this story sounds authentic, and the sets and effects are dazzling even by today's standards.
A lot of people seem to be confused about the term "popcorn muncher." That's when a movie is intended to be fun, dumb entertainment without bothering too much to be a serious work of art. People make the mistake of calling something by Uwe Boll or M. Night Shyamalan a "popcorn muncher." No, a Z-list flick like The Purge is not a popcorn muncher. Popcorn munchers have all three attributes of dumb, fun, and entertainment. The Purge only has one of those.
The Devil's Advocate is a shining example of a "popcorn muncher." And that's what makes this movie good. We've seen plenty of portrayals of the Devil before, but he's usually a cardboard figure that comes, makes his infernal bargain, and goes. Here, the Devil gets a lot to say, to the point where you can at least see it from his point of view, even though you don't agree with it. The script does try to put on its big boy pants and pose some interesting philosophical questions. We can see these characters as they are tested to literal hell and back, and each of them shows us what they're made of.
But at the same time, the story just can't be serious enough to live up to these high-fallutin' aspirations, and so we still get a horror thriller B-movie. But a gilded one, making it lip-smackingly edible.