'Fallen' stumbles quickly Review: If all else fails, 'Fallen' moviemakers can explain shortcomings by saying the devil made them do it.

January 16, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

It's been assayed that Denzel Washington is the Cary Grant of this generation, but a more apt comparison may be James Stewart. Grant, after all, was the sum of some wonderfully charming parts, whereas Stewart's impact, the way he combined nobility and likability, was deeper and more ineffable. Since his forcible performance as Malcolm X in 1992, Washington has become the American actor most able to personify goodness without sappiness or superiority.

Still, even Washington's welcome presence is not enough to save "Fallen," yet another spiritual allegory from Hollywood dealing with God, Satan and the presence of angels.

As unlikely as it sounds, this isn't a product of the current New Age craze for those things with wings. Screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, who wrote "Frances" and "Reversal of Fortune," reportedly got the idea after hearing Norman Mailer speak years ago. But however estimable its provenance, "Fallen" never attains its mission, which is to demonstrate evil at its most insidious and ubiquitous. Predictable and sluggishly paced, with an irritating habit of depending on the Rolling Stones to sell its story, "Fallen" quickly exhausts the interest of its central idea and becomes just another pretentious, thrill-free thriller.

Washington plays Detective John Hobbes, whose name should be a tip-off to political philosophy students everywhere: Thomas Hobbes was the man who wrote about man in the state of nature, calling that life "nasty, brutish and short." And sure enough, a reference to "brutish fate" is made at the outset of "Fallen," when Hobbes witnesses the execution of Reese, whom Hobbes had arrested for a series of murders.

Before heading to the chamber ("Fallen" was filmed in Philadelphia but takes place in an unnamed city), the murderer, played by the creepily effective Elias Koteas, grabs Hobbes' hand and begins speaking gibberish. Later, as the gas rises around him, he begins to sing "Time Is on My Side." That would be pop-culture-reference-speak for "I'll be back."

Indeed Reese does continue to make his presence felt, and for a little while, "Fallen" plays with the idea of how evil is transmitted with intriguing ingenuity. But once it's explained, "Fallen" becomes just a variation on a theme, with no real variation; when Hobbes' sweet brother and nephew (Gabriel Casseus and Michael J. Pagan) become involved, what might have been an edgy investigation into the randomness of evil reverts to boilerplate.

Then there are the little quibbles, like an ace detective failing to follow up when a theology professor he's interviewing (Embeth Davidtz) drops a couple of crucial clues about Reese.

John Goodman and Donald Sutherland are good as Hobbes' colleagues, and both cooperate nicely with the conceit that no one can truly be trusted in a world where Satan is as contagious as a flu virus. (Goodman's Mick Jagger imitation is an unexpected bright spot.) Gregory Hoblit, who directed the execrable "Primal Fear," gives Philadelphia a nice, burnished look as a city holding on to its last vestiges of charm.

For all the coffee that's consumed in "Fallen," the film proceeds at a soporific pace. Worse, it's never as frightening as it wants to be. The best of its forebears -- "Rosemary's Baby," "The Shining," "The Omen," even "Devil's Advocate" before it descended into ridiculousness -- knew that what makes evil terrifying is its sheer banality, its random everydayness. "Fallen" has a grasp of this, then loses it when it reaches for more pointed, and much easier, theatrics.

Mephistopheles might have made for good opera, but when he makes an appearance on the big screen, the smaller the better.

'Fallen'

Starring Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland

Directed by Gregory Hoblit

Released by Warner Brothers

Rated R (violence and language)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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