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Touched by a Devil

In the paranoid cosmology of Gregory Hoblit's Fallen, satanic evil is transmitted from person to person by casual touching, like typhoid or some rampant strain of the flu. Almost no one is immune in this deadly game of tag. Not fry cooks on their cigarette breaks, not award-winning teachers walking home, not helpful cab drivers who offer their hands to pedestrians who have slipped on the pavement. Certainly not police officers rubbing elbows with a densely packed city of strangers.

Despite a built-in plausibility problem, this is an authentically scary idea for a movie--a brainy horror flick for connoisseurs of the genre. But writer Nicholas Kazan and director Hoblit also seem intent on wooing a lot of other constituencies: the X-Files cult and the old Exorcist crowd; adherents of the current angel craze; fans of pseudo-gritty cop shows like NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues; fundamentalist Christians; gloomy millennialists who don't think there will be a Super Bowl in the year 2000; even the 27 living earthlings who once read Paradise Lost in college lit class.

The result is a supernatural cop thriller with a demon's curse as well as a lot of station-house banter in it--and its share of provocative confusion. To be sure, Fallen can raise the hairs on your very head. A moment later, though, you might find yourself scratching that head in bewilderment.

Here are a couple of things we do know. First, our hero, John Hobbes (Denzel Washington), is the kind of savvy detective whose curiosity gets aroused when somebody starts mimicking the horrific murders of a serial killer he has just helped send to the gas chamber. Second, these moviemakers are interested in the biblical notion of fallen angels--Lucifer and the gang. Third, they want us to embrace (and recoil from) the possibility that these damned souls have been roaming the earth since their eviction, their lethal spirits hitching rides in the bodies of unsuspecting humans.

In other words, this is not the usual policier. From the moment the unrepentant serial killer Reese (Elias Koteas) goes singing and boasting into the hereafter (it's one of the most surreal execution scenes ever put on film), Fallen casts a relentlessly spooky spell under which the submerged clues of a murder investigation constantly give way to meditations on the nature of man, heaven and hell, good and evil. Sometimes the moviemakers trip over their own theological complications, and the rules of the game get opaque amid the mumbo jumbo. Sometimes they slip into pretension. But this is still chilling, daring stuff--a murderer with a demon in him shouting curses in what turns out to be ancient Sumerian, a dark secret in a dead man's decrepit mountain cabin, a tense battle in the midnight streets of Philadelphia between the fallen angel Azazel and a cop who comes to understand he won't find this eternal, shape-shifting antagonist in the mug-shot files. Instead, he may find him in his own apartment, getting cozy with his own brother, his own nephew, with himself.

This view of the darkness is held together, more or less, by Kazan's sharp urban dialogue, Hoblit's feel for dangerous atmospheres (he produced three hit cop series on TV) and, in a stroke of near-genius, assorted renditions of the old Stones hit "Time Is on My Side," Azazel's twisted anthem as he prowls the kingdom of man, touching, invading, slipping into new forms.

Again, Washington shows that he's much more than a matinee idol: A lesser actor might have had trouble convincing us that Hobbes is at once a workaday cop with his feet on the ground and a deep thinker capable of existential questions. As it is, Agent Mulder doesn't have a thing on him. But Denzel's not alone at the head of the drama class. I've never enjoyed ex-Roseanne sidekick John Goodman more than in his spiky, nuanced turn here as Jonesy, Hobbes's longtime working partner. Donald Sutherland is as polished (and scary) as ever as a shadowy police lieutenant, and Embeth Davidtz (the commandant's terrified slave-servant in Schindler's List) strikes just the right balance between knowingness and fear as a theology professor who knows all about demons and angels. As for Koteas's cackling killer, the man who speaks in tongues--he doesn't get much screen time, but he may be the creepiest villain in moviedom since Hannibal Lecter vanished into Central America.

Believer? Agnostic? Atheist? Other? It doesn't really matter. Even if you don't buy heaven and hell, Fallen is a bundle of harrowing thrills, a paranoid's delight and a reminder--no matter what your worldview--that there's wickedness out there, lurking on every street corner.

Fallen.
Screenplay by Nicholas Kazan. Directed by Gregory Hoblit. With Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland and Embeth Davidtz.

 
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