Have you watched today’s Role Recall with Al Pacino? If not, you should check it out; he offers up great anecdotes about some of his finest performances. But one of Pacino’s best recent turns is notably absent: His fantastically underrated turn in The Devil’s Advocate. Pacino stars in the 1997 psychological thriller as high-powered corporate attorney John Milton, who lures up-and-coming country lawyer Keanu Reeves into his corrupt practice. Spoiler alert: The not-so-subtly named Milton turns out to be Satan himself, and he’s less interested in Keanu’s law career than he is in employing him to sire the next Antichrist. The film squeaked by with a 66% positive critical rating, but Pacino’s hammy devil never got his due. The Devil’s Advocate frequently appears on “worst” lists of Pacino performances. I’ve heard it cited as the moment when he stepped off his Godfather pedestal and descended into camp. But to say that is to reject one of Pacino’s most flat-out entertaining films.
A great actor knows what kind of film he’s in and modulates his character accordingly. The Devil’s Advocate is a pure pulp – cleverly executed with a screenplay by future Bourne Identity scribe Tony Gilroy, but pulp nonetheless. If ever there was a role that called for scenery to be chewed, it’s John Milton. Pacino had played more than his share of complex, emotionally nuanced bad guys when he took the role of Satan. In Devil’s Advocate, he throws all that gleefully out the window. Milton is a straight-up snake, smooth and soulless. When the audience is first introduced to Milton, Pacino crinkles his big, wet eyes and turns on the charm. “Are we negotiating?” asks Keanu’s lawyer. “Always,” Milton replies with a grin, practically chomping his teeth.
Over the course of the film, Pacino peels back the pleasant façade and becomes a model of pure id, dark and depraved. It all culminates in an epic, infamous showdown, during which Milton reveals to his protégée what the audience has long ago figured out: He’s really a Hell of a guy. Watching Reeves flail under Pacino’s steady gaze — at one point the young counselor yells “I don’t lose! I win! I’m a lawyer! That’s my job!” — is like watching a spider try to get out from under a shoe. By the time Milton starts ranting about God and the universe, his face lit by an oversized fireplace (again, subtlety is not this film’s strong suit), Reeves might as well not be in the room. Soon Pacino is lip-syncing Sinatra, then reciting Latin, and finally – in one utterly GIF-able, outlandish moment of defeat – screaming “No!” as fire erupts around him. Who could ask for anything more from a climactic scene?
Is Pacino over-the-top here? Absolutely. But it’s the culmination of a carefully modulated performance, which starts out subtle then ratchets up to flat-out bananas. And there’s something to be said for an actor who can pull off this level of theatrics. It’s hard to imagine Channing Tatum, for example, commanding the screen with a ten-minute monologue about humanism and destiny. The Devil’s Advocate is no Shakespearean drama, but Pacino imbues his Satan with all the bombast and fury of a classic stage villain. “Don’t get too cocky, my boy,” Pacino advises Reeves in the film. “No matter how good you are, don’t ever let them see you coming.” Fortunately, he doesn’t take his own advice; you can see him coming from a mile away, and that’s the fun of it.
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