Friday January 16, 1998
Somewhere in the dark woods of the cold Northeast, a man is crawling in a panic across the ground. He looks about done in, ready to chum for earthworms, when we hear the calm voice of a narrator saying he wants to tell us "about the time I almost died."
The velvet voice belongs to Denzel Washington, and as the camera moves in, we recognize him as the man in his death throes. But the voice and the face are a weird mismatch. This guy is talking to us from a point long enough after the event for him to have perspective and an ironic sense of humor about it.
The framing device for Gregory Hoblit's "Fallen" is a familiar one to fans of postwar film noir. Think of narrator William Holden floating face down in a swimming pool at the start of Billy Wilder's "Sunset Blvd.," or of a poisoned Edmond O'Brien stumbling into a police department to report his own murder in Rudolph Mate's "D.O.A.," or a gut-shot Fred MacMurray dictating a confession in "Double Indemnity," another Wilder film.
"This better be good," we think, as the narrator launches into his story, and though "Fallen" is no "Sunset Blvd.," the payoff at the end of the road is a gem.
Written by the able Nicholas Kazan ("Reversal of Fortune"), "Fallen" is a hybrid of crime drama and supernatural thriller, which is no easy trick. This is a story about a conventional cop hero, Washington's noble homicide detective John Hobbes, being terrorized by a fallen angel who takes over the bodies of people and animals, and passes from one to another with a mere touch.
This demon terrorizes for sport, and for the greater collapse of human faith, and from the clues intentionally scattered about, Hobbes knows his adversary is left-handed, anal retentive, keen on Corn Flakes, obsessive about the Rolling Stones song "Time Is on My Side," and determined to enter Hobbes' body and destroy his soul from within. You see the problem.
Hoblit, a producer on "L.A. Law," "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" before making his directing debut with the clever 1996 courtroom drama "Primal Fear," knows the difficulty audiences will have suspending their disbelief when the genres collide, and attempts to make it easier for us by showing how tough the whole thing is for Hobbes to swallow. And there is a touch of whimsy to the voice of the narrator, an audible tongue-in-cheek, that distracts us from logical reasoning.
The film veers into dicey biblical theory a couple of times, as Embeth Davidtz's theology teacher gives Hobbes the lowdown on fallen angels, but Hoblit pulls it back quickly each time, before the baloney alarm goes off in the theater. In fact, he turns the film's most preposterous moments to his advantage, creating fascinating chase sequences with a villain who never actually materializes.
The demon spirit is invisible. It's merely manifested in whatever body it's currently occupying. To relocate, all it has to do is touch another person. Occasionally, fallen angels meet resistance when trying to enter particularly pure souls. That's the case with the demon, called Reese after the killer (a scary Elias Koteas) he's taken over, when we first meet him. He has to work through the bodies surrounding his prey.
So he can be anyone: Hobbes' timid brother Art (Gabriel Casseus); his nephew Sam (Michael J. Pagan); his partner Jonesy (John Goodman); his boss Lt. Stanton (Donald Sutherland); Davidtz's Gretta Milano, the daughter of a previous victim; or anyone else in the busy, unnamed city (actually, Philadelphia). The demon is not shy about letting Hobbes know where he is, and often toys with him by switching bodies as if playing tag.
Kazan's screenplay bears no scrutiny. The demon could kill Hobbes in the opening scene and make "Fallen" a short, or any time thereafter, the obviousness of which makes the final confrontation all the more fanciful. But for those who go along with it, it's a crafty piece of work nonetheless, ending with a pair of marvelous twists.
Fallen, 1998. R for violence and language. Turner Pictures presents an Atlas Entertainment production of a Gregory Hoblit film. Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Produced by Charles Roven and Dawn Steel. Written by Nicholas Kazan. Executive producers Elon Dershowitz, Nicholas Kazan, Robert Cavallo, Ted Kurdyla. Director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel. Production designer Terrence Marsh. Editor Lawrence Jordan. Costume designer Coleen Atwood. Music composed by Tan Dun. Running time: 2 hours. Denzel Washington as John Hobbes. John Goodman as Jonesy. Donald Sutherland as Lt. Stanton. Embeth Davidtz as Gretta Milano. James Gandolfini as Lou.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times