January 23, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST


Current Status
In Season
Embeth Davidtz, John Goodman, Denzel Washington, James Gandolfini, Donald Sutherland
Gregory Hoblit
Horror, Mystery and Thriller
We gave it a C

My hunch is, it’s only going to get worse in the next two years: the angel books, the X-Files mania, the trendy pseudo-kabbalah classes attended by Sandra Bernhard and Madonna. By Western reckoning, the millennium is at hand, and folks who have forgotten how to pray want to believe. Feng shui sounds like a good idea. Please don’t squeeze the shaman. My grandfather used to say that back in his shtetl (when prayer was prayer), the rabbis warned against anyone under 40 studying kabbalah, the mystical, esoteric subset of Judaism concerned with the origin and fate of the soul: Makes you crazy, the rabbis thundered, makes you not fit for this world. Had Grandpa lived to see Fallen (War-ner Bros.), he would have shrugged his shoulders, crumbled his matzo, clicked his dentures, and sighed, Nu?

Fallen is what happens when too many mystics attend a Hollywood pitch meeting. How about we do a cop drama, they say, something with an NYPD Blue-ish feel? Only, they continue, let’s get the Truth Is Out There crowd in, and the spiritual-but-not-religious set, and the kids who visit http://www.blackmagick.com, too! For weight and a semblance of serious drama, sign Denzel Washington for, say, $12 million to play John Hobbes, a good Philadelphia homicide detective with a strange bond to a demonic serial killer (Elias Koteas), recently executed; for weight of a different kind, add John Goodman as Hobbes’ genial, sweaty partner. Because, with his feral teeth, mad-white hair, and sneering puss, he makes mortgage payments playing SOBs, throw in Donald Sutherland as an unsympathetic precinct superior. And since every police procedural needs a little estrogen for relief, take Embeth Davidtz (sad and startled looking as always) as a theology professor capable of explaining — with a woman’s tremulous touch — the very real presence of the Devil’s henchpersons on earth (i.e., fallen angels) to a cop not exactly up on the story of Azazel. (Grandpa told me that the word Azazel relates to the live goat — the scapegoat, if you will — on whose head the high priests placed all the sins of the Jewish people on the Day of Atonement in ancient times. Davidtz’s scholar adds that Azazel is also a manifestation of Satan, an evil spirit that can pass from person to person with a touch or a breath — and that this Azazel has, apparently, been knocking around looking to make lethal mischief since the serial killer died. Go figure.)

Director Gregory Hoblit, who played a major role in defining all cop and lawyer dramas on television today with his groundbreaking work on Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue (and who made a powerful feature debut in 1996 with Primal Fear), swings with familiar ease through an impressively dreary, cluttered workplace here, so at home is he in cop land. When Hobbes gets together with his buddies (including James Gandolfini, excellently obnoxious), the rhythm of camaraderie is a treat. Too, Hoblit reaps the benefit of all those years of whoosh-and-jiggle camera experimentation in the lively scenes where the evil spirit literally hops from soul to soul, handed off in a jostle, a pat; for an added thrill, these temp demons also pass along broken musical phrases from the great Rolling Stones anthem ”Time Is on My Side” — the perfect accompaniment from the band that advocates sympathy for the Devil.

Hoblit and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan clearly have big thoughts about the battle between good and evil. ”Certain phenomena only exist if there is a God,” says the professor, mournfully, adding that certain people have been put on earth to fight the good fight (a short list that would include presumably, all of us watching the screen). ”This is religion, Mr. Hobbes,” she intones. (Wink, wink: ”Mr. Hobbes” is itself a devilish nickname.) Yet, my dear friends, this isn’t religion. This is fad, trivia, and devoid even of one of Dana Scully’s lispy musings on Catholicism. Tripped up by its own escalating mumbo jumbo, Fallen loses a sense of purpose just when it should be reaching the payoff, a literal tussle that suggests Jacob’s biblical wrestling match with the angel.

With Hobbes grasping at short philosophical straws (and dialogue like ”Evil just keeps coming, ya know what I mean?”), Washington ends up operating with an economy of energy some might call elegantly minimalist — and others might call just plain missing. Meanwhile, Azazel slips and slides, just like a devil would in such a Hollywood playground. C


Fallen STARRING Denzel Washington John Goodman Rated R 124 Minutes

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