If a Hollywood producer wanted to retell the "Faust" legend in a contemporary setting, it's easy to guess the main character would be a lawyer. Not an old-fashioned attorney endowed with fair-minded logic and seat-of-the-pants wisdom, but a late-century shyster burdened with stereotypical traits like unbridled ambition, hired-gun ethics, and a conviction that triumph in the courtroom is the only thing that counts.
And so we have Keanu Reeves in "The Devil's Advocate," playing a talented young Southerner who wins every case he tries - first as a prosecutor, then as a defense attorney who's not overly concerned whether his clients are guilty or not. Wooed by a wealthy Northeast firm, he moves to New York despite warnings from his deeply religious mother, who tells him Manhattan is a latter-day Babylon crawling with sin and temptation.
Ensconced with his beautiful wife in a posh apartment, he rises rapidly in his profession, earning mountains of money and generous praise from the firm's mysterious boss. It seems too good to be true, and of course it is. The firm appears more immoral every day, the demands on his time and energy are crushingly hard, and his wife misses the attention he used to lavish on her.
And what's behind the nightmarish visions that start tormenting the couple as they sink ever deeper into their strange new life?
Without revealing too many of the movie's secrets, it's fair to say that the insidious firm and its supernatural boss turn out to be literally infernal, using the modern-day legal system to manipulate society and lure weak-willed opportunists to perdition.
In the end, "The Devil's Advocate" carries a lesson about the wiliness of temptation and the need for personal responsibility that's as strait-laced as a medieval morality play. But be warned that the filmmakers drape their story in more lascivious sex and shocking violence than a traditional "Faust" rendition. This is the year's most vivid example of what a filmmaker once called the Cecil B. DeMille sin-and-scripture syndrome, following Hollywood's age-old practice of deploring evil while plastering it all over the screen.
The picture was directed by Taylor Hackford, a versatile filmmaker whose credits range from the melodrama of "An Officer and a Gentleman" to the documentary of "Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll." He keeps the overlong action flowing rapidly, helped by Andrzej Bartkowiak's spooky camera work and Mark Warner's energetic editing.
The only technical disappointments come from the special-effects department. It tries to make the villains look like living gargoyles in some scenes, but the images lapse into clichs that were already stale when "I Married a Monster From Outer Space" trotted them out in the 1950s.
Reeves gives his most persuasive performance to date as the misguided lawyer, and Al Pacino is devilishly devious as his wicked boss, who flashes hypnotic glances and always travels by subway so he'll be close to home. The strong supporting cast includes Charlize Theron, Judith Ivey, Jeffrey Jones as an ill-fated accomplice, and Craig T. Nelson as the firm's most scoundrelly client.
* Rated R; contains a great deal of very explicit sex, nudity, and lurid violence.