Some movies are immediately great. Those are the movies like The Godfather or The Matrix, films that have such immediate, obvious impact and quality that they instantly become part of the culture. Other movies achieve greatness over time, as elements that were not apparent on release slowly resonate with viewing audiences. That’s a movie like Jim Carrey’s The Cable Guy. And some movies have greatness thrust upon them by the sheer force of their unforgettable ridiculousness, even when the finished film should really not deserve it. The 1997 supernatural thriller The Devil’s Advocate is one such film. This film stars Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves, and as of this February, is streaming on Netflix. You need to watch it.
Let’s set some context: in the 1990s, Keanu Reeves had emerged as a star. After breaking through to audiences as the amiably goofy time traveler Ted “Theodore” Logan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, he had wildly veered through genres. In the space of just a few years, he tried everything from family comedies (Parenthood) to offbeat indies (My Own Private Idaho) to cyberpunk science fiction(Johnny Mnemonic). He had eventually settled into action roles most successfully, with 1994’s Speed becoming an enormous commercial and critical hit. At the same time, he was generally considered a stiff and wooden actor, even if his charisma and boyish handsomeness made him a success. At the same time, Al Pacino had spent the 1970s as one of the world’s greatest actors, took a sharp plunge into forgettability with films like Sea of Love and Author! Author! In the 1980s and then resurfaced in the early 1990s to win his only Academy Award in Scent of a Woman. At the same time, the very 1990s saw a surge in popularity of legal thrillers, with movies like The Firm, The Client, The Rainmaker and The Pelican Brief. John Grisham was usually involved.
So it made a lot of sense for a new movie star like Keanu Reeves and a resurgent one like Al Pacino to sign on board for a legal thriller. However, as fate would have it, the film they ended up in is probably the single most bizarre example of its genre out there. The Devil’s Advocate delivers what it promises from the start. It is not a subtle movie. It does not contain nuanced performances. Probably no one involved ever even heard the word “restraint” at any point during production. But through the strange combination of all its extreme elements, it becomes something more than any of the other more serious, straightforward films could ever be. It becomes a classic.
The plot of The Devil’s Advocate is not actually complicated. To spoil what the title has already given away, Keanu Reeves plays the Devil’s lawyer, Kevin Lomax. Literally. Reeves plays a hotshot Florida lawyer (described as never having lost a case) recruited by a powerful New York law firm, headed by Al Pacino’s Satan. Because, again, this is not a subtle movie, Satan has taken the name John Milton, shared by the man who wrote Paradise Lost. As it turns out, Lomax is Milton’s own son, and is needed to have sex with his sister in order to bring about the end of days by conceiving the Antichrist. Or as Pacino’s Satan puts it: “Whatever.”
Truly, it is a sordid story. It is filled with gratuitous sex and nudity, a goat being slaughtered in a basement as part of a Satanic ritual, Ferris Bueller’s high school principal being beaten to death in Central Park and Keanu Reeves’ approximation of a Southern accent. Leaning into the performance style that won him an Oscar, Al Pacino frequently acts at the top of his lung. He is given a speech at the climax of the film, in which he screams that God is “an absentee landlord.” None of it should work. But it does because it in no way relents from its fever dream of a tone. It is simply such a bizarre combination of elements that it fuses into something like sincere camp. The meeting place of Keanu as he struggles upward with his acting as Pacino descends into fiery monologue creates a film unlike any other.
And with anyone else, it likely would not have. Al Pacino turned the film down three times. Keanu Reeves’s part was originally slated to be portrayed by Brad Pitt. It was received with mixed reviews at the time, with Roger Ebert narrowing in on that “Whatever” line as a fulcrum of the movie as a whole. It was a box office success, and has inspired attempts at TV series, musicals and stage plays over the years. It even has odd moments of beauty, like this eerie scene of an empty New York City that was imitated by Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise a few years later in Vanilla Sky. Reeves’ next film was The Matrix, which would irrevocably change the arc of his career. Pacino would continue his critically well-received screaming with The Insider and Any Given Sunday. While both of them have certainly made their share of odd movies before and after, neither of them would make another one quite like it. But really, no one has.