Fallen Review

by Edward Johnson-ott (PBBP24A AT prodigy DOT com)
January 20th, 1998

Fallen (1998)
Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, Embeth Davidtz, James Gandolfini, Elias Koteas. Directed by Gregory Hoblit. 122 minutes. Rated R, 2 stars (out of five stars)

Review by Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly
Archive reviews at http://us.imdb.com/M/reviews_by?Edward+Johnson-ott
Anyone up for a nice game of demonic tag? In the supernatural thriller "Fallen," the demon Azazel can transfer from body to body by mere touch. It happens instantaneously, so quickly that the next party doesn't even have time to react. There's a great scene in the film where Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) finally realizes the truth about the creature when it follows him down a crowded street, transferring from body to body with remarkable ease while taunting the terrified officer. Director Gregory Hoblit exhibits perfect timing in this nifty scene, his camera flowing smoothly from actor to actor as Azazel body-hops. It's words and expressions seamlessly transfer from one person to the next, and the effect is dazzling and truly creepy. Ah, if only Hoblit could have maintained this level of tension for the whole film.
He didn't, of course, which is why "Fallen" has been released in January, a month designated by the studios for dumping those films that couldn't cut it during the highly competitive holiday season. It's a shame, because "Fallen" had real potential.
The idea is nothing new. The stylish sci-fi thriller "The Hidden" focused on a hedonistic alien murderer that moved from one human host to another and the central storyline of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" involved the demon BoB, who killed Laura Palmer while inhabiting her father's body. In those stories though, the transfer was traumatic, to say the least. The ingenious twist of "Fallen" was in making the transfer instantaneous and painless. When the demon moves on, the previous host has no memory of what just happened, making the procedure all the more insidious. How does a detective follow an investigation when the body that did the killing may actually be innocent? Unfortunately, "Fallen" only toys with the notion, rather than diving in completely.
The story begins as Hobbes attends the execution of his nemesis, serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas, in a brief, but electric performance.) Hours before his death, Reese requests, and receives a visit from Hobbes. In one of the film's best scenes, Reese moves about his cell like an animal, grinning maniacally at Hobbes while tossing off lines like "What goes around really goes around" between explosive bursts of a language not used since Biblical times. In the gas chamber, Reese continues grinning, singing "Time Is On My Side" right up until the end. Immediately following his demise, the camera moves to a point of view shot above the body, providing a hint of things to come.
In short order, Hobbes learns that something very weird is up, as the streak of murders begins again. His investigation leads him to supernatural notions he cannot begin to accept and to theology student Gretta Limano (Embeth Davidtz,) the daughter of an officer who was killed by Azazel.
All the elements for a successful thriller are present in "Fallen," yet the film never quite catches fire. A large part of the problem lies in Denzel Washington's performance. Washington is a charismatic actor, but generally behaves like a Scoutmaster with a broomstick jammed up his ass. He is at his best in films such as the charming "The Mighty Quinn," where his stiffness was incorporated into the story. Here, his behavior simply appears too proper and subdued for the situation. His muted reactions to the incredible circumstances around him puts a damper on audience reaction as well.
There's also the matter of Reese. When Hobbes learns the truth about Azazel, he surely would realize that, as one of Azazel's host bodies, Reese may have actually been just another victim of the demon. It would have been nice to see Hobbes give at least a moments thought to the notion that he might have sent an innocent man to his death, but it never happens.
Instead, the sole focus of the film is the cat and mouse game between the demon and the cop, while the supporting cast twiddle their thumbs. John Goodman is wasted as Hobbes partner, Donald Sutherland does his usual sinister shtick as the commanding officer, and Embeth Davidtz just rushes about looking grim. A promising subplot involving Hobbes live-in brother and nephew is never explored.
We do, however, get lots of footage of a dreary Philadelphia and an annoying voice-over from Denzel Washington that drips with clichés. Now don't get me wrong, "Fallen" isn't a terrible film. There's a genuinely intriguing idea at play here, and in a few scenes, the premise comes alive, showing just how juicy the film might have been. Had the filmmakers taken a little more time to think the story through and flesh out the supporting cast, "Fallen" could have been a real corker instead of just another January throw-away.

copyright 1998, Ed Johnson-Ott

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