NEW YORK — 'Fallen" begins with the execution of a ranting serial killer in the California gas chamber. This is another sign that capital punishment, once considered a serious moral issue, has become just another spectacle for audiences to gasp at. It's not an edifying sight.
From there, the thriller gets better for a while.
Denzel Washington plays John Hobbes, the detective who put that murderer behind bars. What he didn't know was that the killer's soul had been stolen long ago by Azazel, a fallen angel who must inhabit human bodies to exist. It was this demon who caused the serial killings, and the execution of his condemned "host" has now freed him to dwell in other bodies - and to avenge himself on Hobbes as wickedly as possible.
Hobbes spends the first part of the story figuring out the nature of his enemy, helped by a grizzled partner (John Goodman) and an attractive theology professor (Embeth Davidtz) who teaches him about angels, fallen and otherwise. Then he enters a high-stakes duel with Azazel, in which his nearest and dearest become unwitting pawns.
The first casualty is the screenplay, which becomes increasingly contrived as it winds its way to a surprise ending that would have more oomph if it flowed more gracefully from earlier scenes.
At heart, "Fallen" is an updated remake of popular possession pix like "The Exorcist" and the '50s classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which had a similar paranoia about normal-looking folks controlled by unseen forces. The garish "Angel Heart" also comes to mind when the plot takes some particularly lurid twists.
While the new movie isn't likely to attract as much attention as its more original predecessors, it's stylishly directed by Gregory Hoblit, who learned the police-drama trade with Emmy-winning efforts on "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law," among other shows. Washington and Goodman turn in solid performances, helped by Donald Sutherland as a moody lieutenant and Robert Joy as a hapless victim.
Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography gives the tale an appropriately spooky look, and Tan Dun contributes a mildly interesting score - although the best music comes from the Rolling Stones, whose "Time Is on My Side" and "Sympathy for the Devil" are used as Azazel's theme songs.
On the downside, some of the dialogue in Nicholas Kazan's screenplay is awfully stilted. (Hobbes: "Can I ask you a personal question?" Friend: "Everything's personal if you're a person.") It's also questionable whether today's popular interest in angels will extend to such a morbid view of the subject, at a time when movies like "Michael" and TV programs like "Touched by an Angel" encourage a very different approach.
"Fallen" will sell tickets on the strength of its appealing cast and high-impact camera work, but will probably fade from the scene more quickly than its demonic villain does in the story.
* Rated R; contains violence and vulgar language.