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Large parts of Fallen seem as if they've been borrowed from other sources: it has the burnt out visual design of Seven, a plot reminiscent of The X-Files, and a group of characters borrowed from countless police dramas. Fallen might be derivative; however, it's also one of the most compelling thrillers of the '90s.
Director Gregory Hoblit (a veteran executive-producer of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue) and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan (a veteran of Frances, At Close Range, and Reversal of Fortune) have fashioned an unsettling story that's rife with paranoia, while cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects) and production designer Terence Marsh (whose art direction credits stretch back to Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago) have created an edgy, cluttered universe of shadows and claustrophobic interiors. But the movie's most notable and distinct quality is its sense of oppressive silences. Fallen isn't another Hollywood thriller that attempts to overwhelm its viewers with machine-gun paced editing and slam bang visuals. No, Fallen takes a more muted approach, and it's all the more effective because of the calm-but-foreboding mood.
Fallen works its spell with a genuinely chilling opening scene with Elias Koteas (of Crash) as a serial killer being executed. Edgar Reese's walk to the execution chamber is a strange ballet of jerky, spastic movements. While strapped to the chair, he begins singing the Rolling Stones' "Time Is On My Side," while vowing that he will return and muttering in languages unspoken for centuries.
Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington), the man who put Reese behind bars, initially disregards Reese's theatrical exit, but then things start happening. First, he keeps running into people who like to sing "Time Is On My Side" and then people start turning up dead--in the late killer's same peculiar style. Could Reese have an accomplice? Or is it the work of a copycat killer? Or is it Reese himself?
Except for Elias Koteas as Edgar Reese, the characters are never quite as compelling as the movie's atmosphere. Hobbes comes off as squeaky clean. The filmmakers drop a few suggestions that his obsessive dedication to this work--which destroyed his marriage--may be a character flaw, but the movie backs away from examining Hobbes--as if the filmmakers are afraid of showing Denzel Washington in a less-than-favorable light. As a result, Hobbes becomes a bland character and the movie suffers. Still, the probing, furtive camera creates an elusive world where evil is forever existing beside us--brushing shoulders with us every day.
Much of the pleasure of watching Fallen comes from the surprises that the story delivers. So I'm going to cut this review short. It's probably best that you see this movie without knowing about the plot twists. The final twist is one of the finest to ever grace a movie screen. (You'll also probably feel a little silly about not seeing it coming because the movie does in fact give you all the pieces of the puzzle.) Fallen succeeds by creating a world of palpable evil, where the ordinary and the mundane are constantly in danger of becoming part of the evil. It's a force that's always around us. In an age of AIDS and international terrorism, this type of paranoia can be potent stuff.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]