Rated R - Running time: 2:03 - Released 1/16/98

Denzel Washington has distinguished himself time and time again as a thoughtful actor, but he is running the risk of becoming typecast as the straight-arrow, good-guy type. Even when he has played criminals, such as in the first half of Malcolm X (before he discovered the Nation of Islam), he still only managed to mask this image with a thin attempt at delinquency; it was not difficult for his character to see the light and turn over a new leaf. And he has offered no surprises here, either. His character in Fallen, detective John Hobbes, is perhaps his most boring yet, or at least a tie with that of Courage Under Fire, but he plays it with predictable Denzel honesty.

The script for this psychological thriller, however, written by Nicholas Kazan and directed by Gregory Hoblit, is really made to keep you on the edge of your seat, and it is the antagonist dogging Hobbes that takes the lead role and has the lion's share of characterization. And the most brilliant thing is that this antagonist is never actually seen as itself. It is played by scores of actors of both sexes, all with fewer than 20 lines, who pass the character around among themselves like a hot potato. What an incredible device.

Hobbes is a cop who is not only fiercely proud of his profession, but of the fact that he has never taken even the slightest advantage of his situation for personal gain. As I said, a typical Denzel character. But when he sends a maniacal serial killer (briefly but excellently characterized by Elias Koteas) to the gas chamber, the man utters some unintelligible ancient language just before he dies, and Hobbes's life changes at that moment. The evil spirit, or fallen angel, who had been possessing the body of the criminal, moves on to its next host, a prison guard. And a few minutes later, when the guard touches another person, it travels into his body. In an eerie game of tag, we see it travel from stranger to stranger throughout the city, transferring itself every time physical contact is made. So we know it's still alive. And it has a grudge against John Hobbes.

What follows is a thrill ride that doesn't let up for most of the movie. Disaster courses recklessly through Hobbes's life, affecting everyone he knows, from his partner Jonesy (John Goodman), to their chief, Lieutenant Stanton (Donald Sutherland), among many others. The only way to find out what is going on is to consult with Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz), the daughter of a cop mentioned by the dying prisoner, a cop who had been decorated for meritorious service but ended up committing suicide under scandalous circumstances.

This is an absolutely fascinating plot, but there is a point in the middle of the movie where one can feel a palpable loss of momentum. It takes a good while for director Hoblit to get it to pick up again, but the conclusion is very intense with a quite unexpected twist at the end. There is no really outstanding performance except perhaps that of Koteas, but there are no terrible ones, either. Washington, Goodman, and Sutherland are all good actors, but they seem to be just putting in time here.

Fallen is the kind of movie that will keep you up at night (probably singing Rolling Stones tunes), or make you look deeply into the eyes of your spouse or lover to make sure they're the right person. Despite a lackluster performance by Washington and a long dead spot in the middle, it does not fail to thrill and chill, and if that is your cup of tea, it comes highly recommended. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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