Fallen: Starring Denzel Washington

As a high-concept mating of two familiar genres, the police thriller and the supernatural, Fallen, Gregory Hoblit’s sophomore effort, is a movie that, despite some strong elements, might frustrate aficionados of both genres.

Playing a bright detective, who’s tormented by conflicting forces of good and evil within and without himself, handsome topliner Denzel Washington has the almost impossible task of holding together a convoluted picture that’s only intermittently suspenseful but is not very engaging on either emotional or intellectual level.

Warner release should enjoy a reasonably decent opening due to its star power but, ultimately, B.O. results will fall below expectations.

Producers Charles Roven and the late Dawn Steel were reportedly so excited by Nicholas Kazan’s spec script that they rushed the film into production within a year after purchasing it. Nonetheless, those familiar with Kazan’s previous work, particularly his wittily acerbic screenplay for Reversal of Fortune, will be disappointed with his writing here. Kazan has constructed a hodgepodge of a movie, one that freely borrows ideas from supernatural movies of the 1970s like The Exorcist, the sci-fi The Hidden, in which an outer-space creature implants himself into the bodies of innocent civilians and causes them to commit violent crime; the longtime TV series, X-Files; and particularly Seven, in the conception of a brilliant serial killer with a philosophical and aesthetic bent.

Tale is framed by the narration of homicide detective John Hobbes (Washington) which, in a bizarre pre-credits sequence, tells the audience about “the time I almost died.” Unfolding as a one long flashback, story then switches to a prison cell, where a demonic serial killer named Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas) is about to be executed. Prior to witnessing the execution with his close partner, Jonesy (John Goodman), and tough supervisor, lieutenant Stanton (Donald Sutherland), Hobbes visits the apprehended prisoner. In a highly disturbing scene, Reese suddenly grabs Hobbes hand, recites hysterically a text in a seemingly undecipherable language, and bursts into singing the Rolling Stones’ hit, “Time Is On My Side” (which later becomes a motto in the narrative).

Back at work, Hobbes and Jonesy are confronted with a new series of brutal murders, committed in the same peculiar style used by Reese. At first, Hobbes suspects that the murders are the product of a copycat. In a subplot that resembles the far superior movies Seven and Copycat, bodies are found in the bathtub with numbers and words carved on their chests. Recalling a clue provided earlier by Reese of a name missing on a chart of decorated cops who have lost their lives, Hobbes begins a thorough investigation that fatefully changes his own life.

It turns out that the missing name belongs to officer Milano, who was under investigation of mal conduct and a few months later was found dead in an isolated cabin, presumably as a result of a gun accident. A meeting with the officer’s daughter, Gretta (Embeth Davidtz), a theology professor, provides all kinds of cryptic hints that throw Hobbes deeper and deeper into the world of supernatural and the occult. Turning point occurs when Hobbes, by now totally obsessive about the case, drives to the cabin and retrieves the Aramaic word Azazel (which means evil incarnate), written on the wall by Milano just before he died.

Hobbes’ all-consuming search is intercut with brief scenes that observe his daily life with his family, his brother, Art (Gabriel Casseus) and his young nephew, Sam (Michael J. Pagan). Both relatives later play part in the increasingly diabolical intrigue, when Art is poisoned in his own bed and Sam begins to behave in an unexpectedly odd manner.

All along, Stanton suspects that the murders might be the work of a rogue cop. Indeed, soon Hobbes himself becomes a prime suspect in a subplot that recalls numerous “wrong man” movies. The scenes taking place at the police station are some of the best in the otherwise meandering movie, for they convey with some wit and humor the kinds of tensions that prevail in the cops’ supposedly “routine” work.

Unfortunately, Kazan and director Hoblit aim much higher than just making a suspenseful and entertaining supernatural thriller, for they endow their movie with a pretentiously philosophical aura, about how “evil is eternal and knows no bounds,” as Hobbes says in his solemn narration. Clearly, Hobbes is meant to embody an Everyman who’s forced to question his own beliefs about the forces of light and darkness and search for the absolute truth.

Hoblit, who last year made a modest feature debut with the court thriller Primal Fear, directs his portentous movie in a self-conscious manner that accentuates Kazan’s embarrassingly silly dialogue, particularly in the scenes between Hobbes and Gretta. As if to erase his TV origins (L.A. Law), Hoblit utilizes a bombastic visual style that’s more artsy than arty. The narration, which doesn’t contribute much to the proceedings, adds an unnecessary layer that gives the audiences too much time to think while watching the film.

Making a valiant effort to render the movie with a semblance of realism and credibility, the gifted Washington is finally defeated by a cumbersome plot that gets progressively complicated without being complex, pompously showy rather than genuinely scary or involving. Goodman, Sutherland, and James Gandolfini (as a nosy cop) acquit themselves honorably with their supporting roles, which are more deftly scripted than the lead one.

Tech credits, especially stylish lensing by Newton Thomas Sigel (who shot The Unusual Suspects) and brisk editing by Lawrence Jordan, are noticeable, though with a running time of two hours plus, pic extends its welcome by at least 15 minutes.