A touch of evil

Denzel Washington's Fallen, and he can't get up

After Santa's overstuffed sack of Oscar qualifiers is disgorged onto screens in December, the studios have little left in their pipelines for January. With all the brutal competition from the big-ticket films, Hollywood has established a tradition in recent years of dumping lost-cause features during the first few weeks of the year. In 1997, it was the airplane "thriller" Turbulence; in 1996, Bio-Dome and Two If by Sea. Ever wondered why Cabin Boy was the lead-off film of 1994?

This year we've got jock-turned-broadcaster in Firestorm (with no press screenings, a sure sign of greatness) and Fallen. The latter--a supernatural thriller with a certified Major Star, Denzel Washington--has been heavily flogged on TV throughout the holidays with an effectively creepy ad. Would that the film were as tightly and shrewdly constructed.

The film opens with Washington's character, John Hobbes, crawling through the snow, wounded. In voice-over, Washington's voice says, "Let me tell you about the time I almost died," before we're taken into the flashback that constitutes the rest of the film.

In a nameless East Coast city--which will look awfully familiar to anyone who's ever lived in Philadelphia--Hobbes, a police detective, has caught a vicious serial killer named Reese (Elias Koteas). At Reese's execution, the deranged killer, who seems to speak in tongues, insists on shaking Hobbes' hand. He then oddly remarks that he has other ways of getting Hobbes. Shortly after Reese's execution, another apparent serial killer starts mimicking Reese's murders, while slowly framing Hobbes for the crimes.

Since the setup is clearly revealed in the ads and the trailers, we won't hesitate to explain what's really going on. Reese is, in fact, possessed by the spirit of a fallen angel named Azazel. This evil spirit can leap from body to body simply by touch, with only a few humans being able to shut him out. If the host body dies before Azazel has a chance to touch someone, no one within a thousand feet can lock Azazel out.

Not being able to enter Hobbes at the execution, Azazel has passed on to someone else. He now grabs a body, lives in it for a while, kills someone, then takes a new body, killing his former host. He is able to inhabit men, women, children, pets, pretty much any carbon-based life form except (for reasons that could have been better explained) John Hobbes. OK? Got the rules straight? Man, if only the filmmakers had.

How can Hobbes vanquish the demon--particularly when his partner (John Goodman) and his superior (Donald Sutherland) are beginning to suspect him of the crimes? (As soon as you see Hobbes accessing the Internet through America Online, in a really pushy product placement, you know that he lacks the resources to take on a nearly immortal demon.)

As Hobbes sees even his own family invaded by the spirit, his only ally is Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz), the theologian daughter of a cop who was similarly framed by Azazel three decades earlier.

Director Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear), working from a script by Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune), manages a few suspenseful scenes, but, at more than two hours, the film handily outstays its welcome. The technical suspense devices he uses would be more impressive if they hadn't already been done to death, both in features and on The X-Files. Azazel's weirdly processed point-of-view shots date back at least as far as Michael Wadleigh's 1981 Wolfen--itself a mess, but at least a more interesting mess. And Fallen's basic plot device, a body-hopping spirit, was used with far more wit in the estimable 1987 The Hidden.

The ending is irritatingly tricked up, with a nasty, cynical switcheroo that I will refrain from ruining further, beyond remarking that it resembles the wretched conclusion of No Way Out. Even such usually charismatic performers as Washington and Goodman are barely exploited here. The script gives them very little interesting to work with.

The only real redeeming features in Fallen are musical. One of Azazel's identifying trademarks as he hops from body to body is his attachment to singing "Time Is on My Side." While I'd hate to see creepiness permanently associated with such a wonderful song--which Fallen isn't likely to accomplish--it would be nice to think that ace songwriter-producer Jerry Ragovoy got a nice piece of change. And the film's orchestral score--by currently hot composer Tan Dun--is the single most original thing about the movie. It's better, and creepier, than Fallen deserves.

Fallen.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Written by Nicholas Kazan. Starring Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, and Embeth Davidtz. Opens Friday.

 
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